Gordon Brown, former British prime minister, issued a warning that the education sector would be hit hard if funds dry up as the world tackles the Covid-19 pandemic, putting the future of millions of children at risk.
Addressing an online gathering of ministers, non-government officials and academicians at a RewirEdX conference organised by Dubai Cares and Dubai Expo 2020 on Tuesday, Mr Brown said governments must protect education budgets.
He urged organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and G20 to release more resources and find innovative ways to finance education.
"We now know there is a huge financing problem. So we are going to lose probably $150 billion from education budgets around the world over the next year,” he told about 2,000 participants who tuned in to the conference.
“There are going to be millions of children who need to catch up and we need to put in resources to make sure that the time they have lost in education is not lost for good.”
Resources for teachers must be part of worldwide recovery initiatives, he said.
“We must have a recovery fund that says employment opportunities depend on us investing in education. Just as environment and climate change is at the centre of the recovery, so should be education.”
While there were some great initiatives, the overall level of international co-ordination has not been good enough, he said.
“What I would like to see is a strengthening of international co-operation at a government leaders’ level over the next year,” said Mr Brown, also the UN’s special envoy for global education.
“Can’t we make it a big global mission that the next time we need everybody to access education and information from home, the facilities will be there? It’s a technology challenge that needs financial backing.
“We need far more pressure to get education right to the top of the agenda.”
Two thirds of the world's school-age children, or 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17, do not have internet access in their homes, according to a recent report by the UN children's fund.
The pandemic widened disparities and meant girls, children with disabilities, refugees and children from poor and marginalised communities were being left behind.
Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director, said countries that managed to keep schools open would fare better.
“Catching up of pupils is going to be a major problem. There will be some who missed one year and it’s a very big leap for children to be making,” she said.
She appealed for education to be the top issue at all international meetings next year.
Educators were at work to connect every school in the world to the internet, work with governments and telecoms companies to provide low-cost digital devices to children as part of a Giga initiative launched by Unicef last year.
“The most marginalised children do not have a chance because they are not connected. But if we can connect every school in the world to the internet and every learner to learning, it will change the future of our world. It will give us a world in which everyone has an opportunity,” Ms Fore said.
School-age children in the sub-Sahara region and South Asia were the most affected, with about 9 in 10 children unable to access the internet.
Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia, said the priority should be investing in teachers, early education and keeping girls in school so they were not forced into early marriage.
“While technology is critically important, it needs the teachers to make it come alive. We need to not only invest in technology but also in high quality teaching,” she said.
Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Co-operation and director general of Expo 2020 Dubai Bureau, spoke of an inclusive education to secure the future of the next generation.
"Now education reform and innovation is more than a necessity, it is also a priority. We must bring the sector into the digital world in a way that places our children first but also brings benefits for the economy, and the whole of society," she said.
“Whether in Dubai or Dar es Salaam, Helsinki or Hyderabad, all children and youth should be guaranteed inclusive and equitable quality education.”
Tariq Al Gurg, chief executive of Dubai Cares, spoke of transforming classrooms.
“Connectivity is a human right and vital to our goal of education being truly accessible to all," he said.
"There have been many lessons learnt in the last year specific to how we can strengthen distance learning opportunities and better respond in the face of a crisis."