Remarks by UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell at the Transforming Education Pre-Summit Opening Plenary As prepared for delivery

Excellencies, colleagues, distinguished guests,

I am honoured to be here today on behalf of UNICEF at a time of great urgency for the children we serve.

I want to thank Secretary-General Guterres and Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed for galvanizing global action to recover learning for millions of children – and to transform education for every child. Your leadership is critical.

No one here is under any illusions about the magnitude of the challenge ahead of us. We know that the world was already facing a learning crisis before the pandemic – but the pandemic has made a bad situation much worse. We are teetering on the edge of a learning catastrophe.

Imagine a classroom of 30 10-year-old students. So much promise so much enthusiasm to learn.

But now imagine that more than 20 of those 10-year-old children are still unable to read a simple sentence on a blackboard.

Imagine that many of them may never learn to read or do math or go any farther in their education.

Imagine how many of them will just drop out, and never learn the skills they need to transition from the classroom to employment to independence to leadership in their communities and their countries.

We don’t really have to imagine any of this, because the evidence that it is beginning to happen is undeniable. And the potential impact on children’s futures is enormous.

Put in strictly economic terms, unless we take action to recover learning, this generation of students is at risk of losing $21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings — the equivalent of 17 per cent of today’s global GDP.

And that statistic doesn’t begin to describe the less tangible benefits children are in danger of missing out on. The joy of learning. The self-respect that mastery can engender in a child. The optimism and hope for the future learning can inspire.

Anyone who has ever seen children attending makeshift schools in refugee camps or girls receiving informal instruction in places that don’t permit them to attend school or children with disabilities – the most excluded of all – in class with their peers has seen that joy and enthusiasm for learning, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Excellencies, we owe it to those most vulnerable children to act – before our window closes and that enthusiasm dims.

If we don’t want children and young people to bear the cost of this pandemic for the rest of their lives, we need to invest in learning recovery — now.

Not enough countries have fully focused on the urgent need for ambitious learning recovery plans – or allocated adequate funding to address learning loss.

That lack of investment and action will leave millions of children behind, ill equipped for the future. And societies will pay the price too, in slower growth, widening inequality, and growing fragility.

As we prepare for the Summit in September, UNICEF is calling for greater focus, increased funding, and rapid action in five key areas.

We need to reach every child and retain them in the classroom. We need to assess where they are in their learning. We need to prioritize teaching the fundamentals of all future learning. We need to invest in remedial support to help children catch up and progress and we need to develop stronger systems to support children’s mental health and wellbeing.

And in everything we do, we need to focus greater resources on reaching the most excluded and marginalized children. They have been left behind for far too long.

This is a pivotal moment. The need to act has never been more evident. There is a spotlight on education and the learning crisis. Partners from every sector are motivated and mobilized to support this effort. Educators, families, students, and young people are working collectively to demand and drive change. We need to make the most of this moment.

I doubt there is a person in this room whose life was not changed by the opportunities their education helped make possible. And I think we all understand that education is the key to unlocking the unlimited potential of this generation of children.

Let’s work together to put that key into their hands.

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