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Rebounding from chaos: trusting in young people and investing in their education

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Justin van Fleet explains why 2022 needs to be the year when the world finally demonstrates its collective faith in and financial commitment to education. He is President of Theirworld and Executive Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education. Theirworld is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2022.

A new year, but the same old fears. The latest variant of Covid-19 is rampaging around the world. Unequal vaccine access is underlining vast and growing inequities in wealth and basic services.

Global political tensions are high, as are threats to democracy and its institutions. The climate crisis continues unabated, with wildfires, floods and extreme weather continuing to affect everyday lives.

Yet amid all this turmoil, I continue to hold one strong belief that gives me hope not just for 2022, but the rest of the decade and beyond: that the passion of young people is an unstoppable force for creating a better world and that investing in this generation of young people is the key to unlocking that brighter future.

In communities and countries across the world, progress is being made, but this year we need to move much more quickly. 2022 must be the year when education truly takes off as a global issue capable of unlocking the solutions to our challenges and commanding the attention – and the investment – that it deserves.

Here are a few things that I can see happening – which indeed must happen – this year if we are truly to set the next generation up for success.

Early years education - a new global priority

Five years ago, calling for two free years of preschool seemed a dream. But more countries are realising the universal importance of investing in early childhood education and development for greater health, wealth and skills development.

Even in the US, where the Biden administration’s signature "Build Back Better" plans are in peril, both Democrats and Republicans see the potential to pass a bipartisan early childhood education bill.

I foresee early childhood being a pillar of the United Nations Secretary-General’s big education summit later this year – and an area for stronger collaboration between government, international organisations and the corporate world.

Building a health-education infrastructure

As Covid continues to test the strength of health and education systems, it is now universally clear that education, health and the economy are linked more than ever. Schools cannot reopen safely without vaccine equity, while there can be no return to a growing economy if schools are not up and running.

Look for further innovative partnerships between health and education systems to create more cohesive health and education ecosystems for communities, ranging from vaccines and school feeding to nutrition and mental health services.

Innovative finance for education - finally?

Any leader who wants to invest in building strong education systems should not be prevented from doing so by a lack of funding.

Compared to the successes in global health such as GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, or the multi-billion-dollar funds combatting climate change, education has traditionally been unable to realise innovative ways of creating resources for strong public education systems at the global level.

Even some early innovation ideas conceived by the Education Commission have been adopted by climate change groups to support the very governments that might benefit from innovation in education finance.

With more countries facing a growing crisis of unsecured, high-risk debt, sustainable sources of guaranteed investment in education could prove even more attractive and necessary if the aim is to increase investment in the sector.

The International Finance Facility for Education is the only advanced concept to mobilise more resources for education from the international community alongside existing funds and to increase commitments from governments themselves.

With several donors already in line to back the fund, I see this as another big opportunity for the UN Secretary-General’s education summit in September.

The power of local solutions and embracing new definitions of scale

Throughout the pandemic, we saw teachers and students on the frontlines of innovation, finding ways to deliver education and support one another.

At Theirworld, we recognised what was happening at ground level and introduced our new Innovation Awards to find promising community ideas and help take them to scale.

This year, I would like to see more trust put in local organisations to grow their efforts to improve education, alongside an increased understanding that scale is not only a matter of reaching more beneficiaries, but developing an idea to build deeper, more holistic solutions for young people in communities.

An example of this is the competition launched recently by the Global Business Coalition for Education in the US for Skills Friendly Cities, which is asking community organisations, city officials and business leaders to produce ideas to make their city more skills-friendly for young people and aims to create a community of innovative practice across the country.

Change driven by youth

This cohort of young people is the most resilient we have ever seen. It has endured the pandemic to continue learning, sometimes against immense personal and family challenges.

We need to reward that resilience by demonstrating our belief in young people. I hope we start to see more of them involved in politics, non-profit leadership and start-ups and corporate boards.

This year at Theirworld we will redouble our efforts with our Global Youth Ambassador programme, which has just successfully brought 1,000 new campaigners into the network in less than a year.

There they will find the research, campaigning and networking opportunities needed to take their place on the frontlines of delivering change in education and their communities.

Finding strength through inclusion

The first quarter of 2022 will see a focus on inclusion, with the Global Disability Summit in Norway in February and the Winter Paralympics in China in March.

GBC-Education’s disability task force will play its part by publishing a major report on how employers can support young people with disabilities to have a quality education and transition to a supportive and welcoming work environment.

It will also set forward actions to ensure how the talent and creativity young people with disabilities is proactively engaged by the business community.

Making ESG work for education

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics are driving decision-making of corporate boards, consumers and investors. While the focus has been on environmental and governance practices and risks, the “S” element has yet to be fully harnessed, especially for education.

GBC-Education will be tackling this issue head-on with concrete opportunities for businesses to advance business and education goals while driving ESG ratings. This will be a growing space and contains a major opportunity for education.

Investment in education

For far too long, governments have though they could address big challenges without investing in education. But it’s become even more clear that this is impossible if a population cannot read, write or possess the basic skills for effective participation in society and the workforce.

Education is key to solving every crucial issue - systemic inequality, climate change, racism, trust in democracy and institutions, and the pandemic that we have been living with for two years. Prioritising education will help us identify common bonds, develop long-lasting solutions and build a brighter future.