Stefania Giannini with Pope Francis on 5 May 2021 Stefania Giannini with Pope Francis on 5 May 2021 

UNESCO's Stefania Giannini: No true development without education

Ahead of World Teachers' Day on 5 October, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Education speaks to Vatican Media about the role of schools in promoting integral human development.

By Alessandro Gisotti

"The transformation of education begins with teachers." This is the theme of the World Teachers' Day, promoted by UNESCO, which is celebrated every year on 5 October. Tomorrow also marks the first anniversary of the Vatican Summit of Religious Leaders for the Global Compact on Education, called for by Pope Francis and organized by the Congregation for Catholic Education. That meeting ended with an appeal by the representatives of different religions to Stefania Giannini, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Education. On the eve of this double anniversary, Professor Giannini talks with Vatican Media about UNESCO's efforts to provide a quality education for all.

The theme for World Teachers' Day 2022 is “The transformation of education begins with teachers”. What can be done globally to help teachers to play this fundamental role?

The transformation of education begins with teachers as they are at the heart of every learning system.  But the teaching profession is in crisis. UNESCO has been sounding the alarm as shortage, lack of training and professional development, overcrowded classrooms, unattractive working conditions and inadequate funding are undermining the teaching profession and aggravating the global learning crisis. The profession is struggling to retrain its workforce and attract new talent.  Globally, 6 out of 10 countries pay primary school teachers less than other professionals with similar qualifications. This profession has to become more valued by society and to access better training. Recent UNESCO data shows that about 15 percent of primary and secondary teachers globally do not have the minimum required qualifications. The gap is even wider in low-income countries with 25 and 40 percent of primary and secondary teachers not meeting that minimum. UNESCO is calling on countries to guarantee that teachers actively participate in social dialogue, decision-making processes and policies. They need to be heard from the classroom to the policy level and must be trusted and recognized as knowledge producers, reflective practitioners and partners.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes a critical connection between education and development. What results are being accomplished on this front?

UNESCO has called for a global mobilization to place education at the top of the political agenda and meet the sustainable development goals. We are currently not on track towards achieving the 2030 education objectives. Our global education system is failing to address present and future challenges and provide quality learning for everyone throughout life. That’s why we must transform education in order to fulfill its promise and help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable societies. That was the core message of UNESCO’s flagship Futures of Education Report published in November 2021 which calls for a new social contract for education. Our report was the steppingstone for the UN’s Transforming Education Summit which took place last month during the UNGA where more than 130 countries committed to rebooting their education systems and accelerating action to end the learning crisis. UNESCO is particularly focused on accelerating efforts to guarantee gender equality in and through education, expanding public digital learning, making education responsive to the climate and environmental emergency, and improving access for crisis-affected children and youth.

For more than a year now, Afghan girls have been denied the right to go to school. What is UNESCO doing to confront this shameful scandal?

UNESCO strongly condemns this unacceptable decision which sets back significant gains in learning made over the last 20 years. The right to secondary education is currently denied to over 3 million girls and young women in Afghanistan and their future is at stake. We reiterate our call for girls to be allowed to return to secondary school without further delay. In addition, the regular attack on schools that we are witnessing is further destabilizing an already weakened education system. Even before the political shift in Afghanistan, the country struggled with over 4.2 million out of school children and youth out of which 60% were girls. UNESCO’s response to this situation is fully in line with the UN Transitional Framework for Afghanistan as well as the UN principles of engagement with the de facto authorities. We are placing priority on the continuity of education through community-based and complementary learning, especially for girls. We are currently targeting the most vulnerable communities in 20 provinces providing community learning classes to 25,000 young people, of which 60 percent are adolescent girls and young women. We are also working closely with our sister agencies to provide scholarship programmes, especially for young women, as well as benefit packages for university professors and support to safe learning environments in universities.

War is one of the most devastating barriers to education. What are UNESCO's initiatives to help teachers in war zones such as Ukraine or Syria?

UNESCO works at the forefront of the world’s most acute humanitarian crises to ensure that inclusive and equitable quality education remains a priority in humanitarian response and recovery assistance.

In Ukraine, our focus has been on supporting the Ministry of Education and Science to ensure learning continuity. For thousands of children, online learning remains the only way to pursue their education. Just last week, we sent an expert mission to follow up on emergency measures taken since the start of the war and to identify the additional needs on the ground. In partnership with Google, a member of UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition established during COVID-19, we are delivering 50,000 devices to teachers and will be supporting the training of around 50,000 teachers, partnering with local organizations.  UNESCO underscores the message that students, teachers and schools must be protected from any form of attack, and that schools must always be safe havens. In the Syrian Arab Republic, we have worked with education personnel to help at risk children achieve better learning outcomes, as well as to provide vulnerable youth with relevant learning opportunities through formal and certified non-formal education programmes. In Lebanon, we are supporting Syrian refugee students to access basic education through formal public schools or alternative learning programmes. In Jordan, UNESCO provides Syrian refugee youth with technical and vocational education and training, on-the-job training and entrepreneurship education, in order to offer them better livelihood opportunities.

Last year you joined the meeting at the Vatican of religious leaders for the Global compact on Education, convened by Pope Francis. How relevant - in your opinion - is the role of religions in helping to promote education?

Education needs a global movement of solidarity, and we must engage everyone. That means religious leaders can have a highly influential role globally in encouraging everyone’s right and access to education - especially girls and women- ,  in changing mindsets, in countering discrimination and stereotypes, and in promoting understanding and tolerance. Ultimately, religions have a strong responsibility and role in promoting peace, dialogue and mutual respect and understanding, values upon which UNESCO’s humanistic mandate was founded. Transcending our differences and diversity, religions carry the power to unlock our spiritual dimension that lies at the heart of human nature.

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04 October 2022, 15:00