Global Action Week for Education – Whatever the question, education is the answer


© Sunny Varkey

UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Education Partnerships Sunny Varkey is a philanthropist, educator and entrepreneur. He is the founder of the Varkey Foundation, a not-for-profit organization supporting projects to improve access to education worldwide. He is also founder and Chairman of GEMS Education, an international education provider.

UNESCO spoke to Mr Varkey on the occasion of Global Action Week for Education which this year takes as its theme Funding the Future. UNESCO is committed to the vision of education as a human right and a global common good with access for all. While the provision of education is the primary responsibility of the state, Public-Private Partnerships play an increasing role, as outlined in the Education 2030 Framework for Action.

How important are public-private partnerships in filling the education funding gap?

The new sustainable development goals (SDGs) call for “inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030. But these will remain empty conference room sentiments if the $16bn (£10.5bn) per year required to achieve good quality universal education throughout the world is not found. Though Governments and NGOs do vital work, there is widespread acknowledgement that the private sector has a role to play in bringing the scale of investment necessary to build the schools and train the teachers needed to meet these new SDG targets. In fact, from the start of negotiations on the SDGs, UN officials have sought to formally bring the private sector into the dialogue.

There have been criticisms of Public-Private Partnerships in regard to education as a human right. How would you reply to that?

Any kind of education provision, whether it is delivered by the public or private sector, must be held to the highest standards of accountability. When you are responsible for the future of children only the very best will do. That is why we cannot accept the fact that over half a billion children are in failing government schools all over the world. We need to consider all options to ensure their human rights are upheld.

As a result, parents in the developing world, even those on low incomes, are voting with their feet and opting for private education because of shortcomings in state provision. World Bank data shows that the number of primary school pupils attending private schools is on the rise, with some costing as little as a dollar a week. 

What role do teachers have to play in ensuring quality?

The fight to educate every single child isn’t just about building a classroom, providing a uniform and employing a teacher. Many children go to school for years and leave without even basic skills. Right now, there are half a billion children in failing schools. We already know the formula for success:  teachers that are respected, well trained and well paid. That is why we were so proud to launch the Global Teacher Prize. By shining a spotlight on great teachers and celebrating the whole teaching profession we hope to attract and retain the very best teachers.

What message would you have for governments in Global Action Week?

Education – the key to solving the world’s problems – has never been at the top of the global in-tray.  But if we work together – government, business and civil society – we have it in our power to consign to history the destructive impact caused by a lack of access to a quality education.  It is time to make the global education crisis history.

Our world is still beset with the problems of hunger, poverty and poor health, and we are facing the growing threat posed by extremism. None of these will be overcome until every child is empowered through knowledge. It is crucial that we don’t let it slip down the priority list, and acknowledge education for what it is – essential investment in the future. We must always remember: whatever the question, education is always the answer.