|UNESCO Bangkok Director Gwang-Jo Kim at the opening of the Asia Summit on Flexible Learning Strategies for Out-of-School Children. — Photo Warren Field.
Gwang-Jo Kim & Karin Hulshof*
There are 16.7 million out-of-school children in the Asia-Pacific region. They come from some of the region's – and the world's – most marginalised communities.
Some are girls living in parts of the region where gender disparities are rife, such as South and West Asia, where 80 per cent of out-of-school girls are unlikely to ever attend school. Some are children with disabilities and those infected with HIV. Some live in remote, impoverished areas where school is a long, dangerous journey away or simply not available. Some are migrants, nomadic people and racial, ethnic and linguistic minorities.
Out-of-school children in the Asia-Pacific region are a disparate group. Despite numbering in the millions, they often go without a voice. Debates over how to change this and best to address their needs have been ongoing for decades – like the 1960 Karachi Plan, which focused on extending education's reach in Asia.
The Education for All era of 2000-2015 represented the most unified global push to date to extend the benefits of learning to all people. Tremendous progress was made, including a surge in universal primary education in this region.
We cannot deny, however, that for millions in this region quality education remains as elusive now as it did 50 years ago. We are left with unfinished business and the realization that we cannot continue failing as we have in the past.
How do we move forward when our systems seem stuck in perpetual stasis?
This is the answer: we take risks. We innovate. We include. We have the potential to impact the lives of millions of learners in the Asia-Pacific region.
We have the regional and international commitments we need to make this happen. Last year's adoption of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education, and the regional Incheon Declaration on Education 2030 guarantee the regional and international commitments we need to make change happen.
Momentum is on our side. The opportunity to innovate to empower our region's out-of-school children is within our reach.
Last week, the Asia Education Summit on Flexible Strategies for Out-Of-School Children was held in Bangkok. It spotlighted innovative, flexible approaches to education that can ride the momentum we now have in the Asia-Pacific region.
More than 560 development workers, government officials, education practitioners, and private sector representatives from throughout the continent gathered for the summit. Their approaches varied. But they were united in their belief that successes in addressing the needs of out-of-school children will not come out of the torpor of where we have been, but from the dynamic possibilities of where we can go if we use fresh approaches.
Flexibility in education means that learning that is adaptable to the needs of the student. Key to this is abandoning the notion that our out-of-school children can be served only by formal schooling systems. We need approaches to education that are open in terms of admission and age requirements, mode, duration, pace and place. And we need to scale up models that have proven effective. We also need to ensure that for those currently out of school, second chance education does not mean second class education.
Innovations discussed at the summit spanned multiple fields, from innovative approaches to financing education, to changes to taxation systems, to ICT-based approaches that use technology to bring in a wealth of online educational resources to areas out of traditional education's reach.
The importance of mother tongue-based multilingual education in a child's early years of schooling was also stressed at the summit. A study released last week by UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring Report shows that 40% of people worldwide do not have access to education in a language they understand, a situation that only compounds the challenges facing minority language learners in our region.
Better data on their backgrounds and on the barriers facing out-of-school children is essential. UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) have partnered in the Global Out-of-School Children initiative with these goals.
The need to reach out-of-school children is not merely a moral or humanitarian imperative. Educating our children is the best possible investment we can make in our region's future – and what might seem like a well-trod cliché is borne out by hard numbers.
A recent study noted that if primary enrollment patterns in Southeast Asia do not change, the unskilled workforce that emerges will cost countries billions of dollars. The socioeconomic implications of this in terms of higher levels of poverty and disease, plus the increased risk of socioeconomic-driven conflict cannot be contained within any one country's borders. In an age of increased mobility between countries and regions, the need to provide quality education to out-of-school children is a transnational priority.
Our focus now is not on the years that have passed but on how we can invest more in education for out-of-school children, take risks to get children to re-enter schools, and introduce innovative learning methods. Action now can positively transform the lives of our children – and the future of our societies.
*Gwang-Jo Kim is the Director of UNESCO Bangkok. Karin Hulshof is UNICEF's Regional Director for South Asia.