In these changing times, it is widely accepted that education needs to be re-evaluated and designed on a different basis.
It seems, however, that while most discussions about educational reform acknowledge its necessity, little is actually taking place in terms of educational policies or school realities. This is even more true for national educational systems.
And there has been little consensus as to the actual steps that need be taken in national systems. The UN sustainable development goals (SDG) agenda does of course provide a framework for future education approaches and curricula but, in practice, more time is spent discussing and perhaps suggesting possible changes than in actually taking action towards meeting them.
Unfortunately there are still societies that do not even consider these goals to be a mandate for the future, or that live in conflict and are not in a position to form any educational policies. UNESCO’s latest report indicates large gaps in mainstreaming education for sustainable development (UNESCO, 2019).
But time is a luxury that education cannot afford. At the current rate, of the 1.4 billion school-age children in low- and middle income countries, 420 million will not learn the most basic skills in childhood by 2030 (UNICEF, 2019). If, as is frequently stated, we are already late in making plausible changes to save the environment, we are even more delayed in educating people for a sustainable and peaceful future.
“At the time of writing, one in five school aged children are not in school at all.”
This year, children entering school will have completed their schooling by 2030, the year by which nations have made a commitment to meeting the UN SDG4 (Quality Education) goals. Yet today, in low-income countries, only 60 per cent of children complete primary school, while in some regions the percentage of students who achieve minimum proficiency in reading is even falling (UNESCO, 2019).
According to office data, for many children and adolescents enrolled in education, schooling does not lead to learning; at the time of writing, one in five school aged children are not in school at all. The same reports state that there is a lack of trained teachers, inadequate learning materials, makeshift classes and poor sanitation facilities. These issues make learning difficult for many children and 617m children and adolescents around the world are unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics (UNICEF, 2019).
“Are there not international private schools operating in some low income countries that aspire to make changes and educate the future leaders of these countries?”
And all this is before the pandemic that has made such an impact on world education, widening the gap and highlighting inequalities. Of course some of these disappointing reports refer to global challenges, conflicts, inequalities, and inefficient education systems that exceed the power of individual schools or local initiatives to change.
But are they not, at least to a certain extent, the very challenges international education aspires to meet by “educating for a better world”? Are there not international private schools operating in some low income countries that aspire to make changes and educate the future leaders of these countries?
Should we not all make a better effort to ensure that our work meets our aspirations for quality education for all? The International Baccalaureate (IB, 2012) considers international education to be “a comprehensive approach to education that intentionally prepares students to be active and engaged participants in an interconnected world”.
The IB programmes follow pedagogical practices that foster students’ recognition and development of universal human values, stimulate curiosity and inquiry and equip students with the skills to learn and acquire knowledge.
The aim is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.
“We frequently see international schools operating in various contexts attracting the most affluent student populations with an eye on the West.”
If we stop a little and think to what extent these aspirations are met, or explore whether they are shared with the local contexts in which programmes are running, we may realise that there is a gap that we urgently need to address.
This gap indicates that what we claim to be doing may not be what we actually are doing, despite all good intentions. A gap that international educators must take action to address.
International education has a role in shaping the future in education globally, especially in view of the 2030 agenda. This is strengthened by virtue of its very philosophical framework and pedagogical steering power.
This strength must be capitalized upon and expanded as a policy for national systems. However, what we frequently witness is more and more international schools operating in various contexts attracting the most affluent student populations, while parental expectations always have an eye for the West, leaving little if any impact on local communities.
If this continues then international education may lose its focus and fail to contribute to the urgently needed educational reform and improvement. Of course this is not to say that individual schools and education practices can, alone, fight against corruption, nepotism, ill-conceived policies, inadequate infrastructure and other factors. Far from it.
“International education has a crucial role to play in this and we must jump to the challenge.”
And it is true that international schools, wherever they operate, do offer an option to families who wish for a different and high quality education for their children, when local systems do not meet their needs. But it is an imperative to see how international education really and essentially contributes to the improvement of this world as it claims. We could make a start with sustainable partnerships between international schools and national systems worldwide, offering teacher training and student collaborations.
Of course someone has to be willing to change in order to take forward such collaborations, but it is important to advocate for it. State and non-state stakeholders and actors, international and local, the most affluent, the middle class and the poorest and marginalized: we are all needed to close the gap and contribute to an education that cares enough to bring quality learning to all children hoping for a better world for the future.
International education has a crucial role to play in this and we must jump to the challenge. We are, as we have always been, interconnected. Let’s work together as well. No other way is possible for a sustainable future.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the latest Spring 2021 edition of International School Magazine.