About one year ago, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, warned that the world is facing a “generational catastrophe” due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. He noted that more than 1 billion children, in at least 160 countries, are missing out on formal studies, while at least 40 million children have missed out on pre-school.
Special needs students, students from minority groups and disadvantaged communities, refugees and displaced persons, are among those at highest risk of being left behind. While the world was already in a “learning crisis” before the pandemic, with 250 million children worldwide out of school, Covid-19 has definitely pushed us to realise that if there was ever a time to make education a top priority, that time is now.
The Covid-19 pandemic has undermined decades of progress, and exacerbated entrenched inequalities in education. For many, quality education seems more like a dream. If Governments within Latin America and the Caribbean expect to attain the education goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for schools to be more inclusive, THEN it is critical that governments take action to intentionally reduce gaps and address the issues that have perpetuated exclusion. The recommendations in the reports are valuable in this regard.
The current Covid-19 reality may bring tremendous doubt to many but the reports presented today provide hope. We are reminded today that 180 million more girls have enrolled in primary and secondary schools, and girls’ learning outcomes have improved over the past 25 years. Female enrollment in tertiary education has tripled. More importantly, this report provides a guide for targeted interventions that can still lead to the achievement of our set goals.
As I focus on the reports in the Caribbean context, I note that the Caribbean has made considerable progress in gender equality over the years, especially in women’s education and their participation in the workforce.
Over the last 30 years, more women than men receive an education in many Caribbean countries, and female enrollment in education in the Caribbean has steadily improved to reach 94% (World Bank 2018). Girls tend to excel in reading more than boys and are closing the gap in their overall performance in mathematics. Girls also tend to outperform boys in standardised tests. While we are proud of the performance of our girls, we are indeed concerned about the performance of our boys in many areas.
Despite the progress made by our girls we also note that some subjects are still male-dominated, which affects equality in work and adult learning opportunities. We still see elevated levels of teenage pregnancy which has become one of the main causes of school dropouts among girls. Gender inequality remains a concern for us in this region and, so, we endorse the recommendations in the report on gender equality. We will continue to work towards ensuring balanced representation of girls and women in fields of study related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. We are also committed to eliminating gender disparity in education access, participation and completion.
Despite the increase in access to the internet across the Caribbean region, the digital divide is still a reality in many countries. This technological advancement, which we have experienced in recent times, can improve well-being and remove social obstacles. However, if we are not strategic in our approach, it can also deepen income and gender inequalities.
In the Caribbean region, both boys and girls are equally exposed to ICT. The challenge is accessibility to the technologies and accompanying infrastructure by the poor and vulnerable. As evidenced by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, the digital divide has widened inequalities.
Families with access to ICT infrastructure and a quality Internet connection are more resilient and can more easily adapt to new ways of doing work and daily activities.
Access to, and efficient utilisation of ICT and the Internet, defines participation in the labour market and participation in remote education. Preventing increased education gaps during the pandemic is key to fostering inclusive recovery. Therefore, it is critical to increase digital capacities in schools and support digital skills acquisition by teachers, parents and students. We therefore endorse and support the need for investment in ICT and policy intervention to help accelerate digital transformation, therefore ensuring social inclusion.
Today’s report reminds us that Latin America and the Caribbean are the most unequal regions in the world. As Governments, we have an obligation to provide equal opportunities for quality education to our people, particularly our children. Therefore, we continue to strive to make this a reality for all our citizens through inclusion.
As a region, we should seek to ratify the conventions that enshrine the right to non-discrimination in education. It is welcoming to note that of the 19 states that embrace inclusion for all in general and specific education law, 10 are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Still, there is a need to have more countries aboard. We must effectively fulfil our commitment to inclusion in education.
The need for horizontal cooperation in governments’ interventions, in order to further the cause of inclusion, is also critical. We must be more willing to share our best practices and strive to be more effective in our management of our inclusion efforts. At the local level, the need for a multi-sectoral approach is also necessary. Curriculum reform and the need for our curriculum to reflect the diversity of our people is also critical. There is also the need for incorporation of the principles of inclusive education within the curriculum of the teacher training programme to ensure that our teachers are the driving force behind inclusion at the ground level.
We endorse the continued empowerment of our teachers, working together with all stakeholders to achieve the learning outcomes and successes.
So, today, as we review the reports and participate in the discussions, this report brings greater meaning to the words “Every Learner Can Succeed – No Child Left Behind.” These must be the words that drive our every action from today forward. The investments every stakeholder makes in the education of children around the world must be inspired by these words. These words must be the source of energy that drives us daily, with passion and determination, to achieve the goals we set to implement interventions for the students who are disadvantaged in our education system.
Covid-19 has exposed the disparities in education, and we need to reach out to these students. Developing partnerships and cooperation in communities should be a priority for us. It takes a collective effort to meet these challenges. Greater emphasis on data collection and management within the education sector to drive our interventions, is also key.
We cannot give in to the reality of the situation we face. We have come too far to give up now. We must fight together to find the solutions to ensure that ALL our children are given an opportunity to have quality education. Let us all work together to ensure that ALL really MEANS ALL.