L-R: The Global Teacher prize winner, Hanan Al Hroub; the Prime Minister of the UAE, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum; and the Chairman of GEMS Education and founder of the Varkey Foundation, Mr. Sunny Varkey, at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) held in Dubai… recently

Changing lives and tackling education’s biggest challenges around the world as a collective responsibility was the focus of the fourth annual Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) 2016, recently held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by the Varkey Foundation. Funmi Ogundare reports  

One of the issues at the front burner at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) 2016 was ensuring that education becomes everybody’s business, as world leaders and experts drawn from public, private and social sectors recently converged on the Atlantis the Palms, Dubai, to address the challenges being encountered in the areas of employment and equity.

The two-day forum, organised by the Varkey Foundation with the theme, ‘Rethinking Collective Responsibility for Public Education’, featured the presentation of papers on topics like: ‘How Do We Address the Challenge of Refugee Children’; ‘A Happy Future for all the Children; How Do We Promote Wellness and Positivity in Schools’; ‘The Teachers of 2030: What Will They Look Like’; ‘How Do We Take Greater Responsibility for Public Education’, among others.

The foundation also presented the ‘Global Teacher Prize’ of $1 million under the patronage of the Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE, His highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid, to an exceptional teacher who made an outstanding contribution to the profession.

The prize went to Hanan AlHroub from Samiha Khalil Secondary School, Palestine, who was selected from top 10 shortlisted teachers from a list of 50 from around the world.

In his opening remarks, the founder of the foundation, Mr. Sunny Varkey, said without education, there would be no end to poverty, and no solution and hope. He said the forum provides a unique opportunity if all stakeholders work together to give every child his birthright.

“By pooling our creativity consistently, we can overcome the crisis and banish injustice once and for all. Use your talent to make the global education crisis history, whatever the question, education is the answer.”

While appealing to others to take up teaching as a profession, he thanked all teachers for the great work they do. “We must treasure teachers, they build a bridge from present to the future and bring us hope and self-respect.

The Chief Executive Officer of the foundation, Vikas Pota, regretted that the world is facing a huge inequality and widespread poverty, with a global workforce facing difficulties such as unstable economies, food shortages, housing issues and civil war. “As we have painfully witnessed in recent years, lack of education, economic instability, marginalisation and deprivation are key ingredients when it comes to radicalism of young people.

“Questions regarding the physical and cultural impacts of integrating large numbers of refugees and how existing infrastructure can be adapted to cope have risen to the top of the political agenda in many climes. Then there is the question of how best to prepare a future workforce for the challenges of tomorrow, given the changing face of work itself. When we look at this situation in terms of the way the education of young people has been affected, we find an entire generation in desperate need.”

Pota affirmed that technology and globalisation are two things shaping the world and at the same time dislocating it, adding that with access to capital, people’s skills need to be upgraded.

“One powerful weapon that we have is education, we have to start thinking big towards the renaissance of the society and upgrading the entire skills set that people have.”

He said the criteria for selecting teachers for the award include recognition of the teacher’s achievement in the classroom and beyond from pupils, colleagues, head-teachers or members of the wider community, and achievements in the community beyond the classroom that provide unique and distinguished models of excellence for the teaching profession.

“The winner also will have demonstrated employing innovative and effective instructional materials, and will have achieved demonstrable student learning outcomes in the classroom.”

The Director of Education and Skills, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), France, Mr. Andreas Schleicher, who assessed the state of education today, said technology is an area where people should look into to make it happen, he said with that people can be active participants.

“Technology can amplify and can do more harm than good because we have not integrated it; there is a lot to do to bring the world of education and technology together. Our schools are innovation positive environment; we can leverage the potential of all learners. Success is not all about point approach, if we invent education from the scratch, we have to engage government to create more spaces. Producing more and more of the same thing is not going to be enough. We need the civil service and government to think about what people need to learn and how we need to prepare young people for rapid change.”

Schleicher stressed the need for leaders to think of modern knowledge that would make the children smarter, saying, “we need to help students manage knowledge and be able to see the world through different lens and develop modern skills. It is clear that quality education can never exceed the quality of teachers.”

On teaching strategies and learning outcomes, the director said good teaching is about making learning central, adding that teacher professionalism is important.

He called for an improved societal view of teaching as a profession by attracting, developing and retaining quality teachers and school leaders, as well as a work organisation in which they can use their potential to build capacity at the point of delivery.

“We need to retain and recognise effective teachers as a path to growth, support teachers in continued development of practice, as well as recruit top candidates into the profession. Many educational reforms happen, it is about shared vision, clear and sustainable policy across government. It is about performance, appropriate targets, it is about sharing best practices and building professional capabilities.”

On the topic, ‘How Do We Take Greater Collective Responsibility for Public Education’, participants agreed that education is now seen as a higher priority.

The Director General, UNESCO, Irina Bokova said: “this is the first time we see real political commitment to education. Nine years compulsory education for all countries; this is a revolution. Education is a transformational goal linked to all the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The focus has to be beyond increasing access to schools.

“Access is still important, we still have 58 million children out of school, the majority of them are girls. But the quality of education is now more important. We have 250 million functionally illiterate people who have passed through formal education.”

She stressed the need to put and youths first by ensuring that they are citizens rather than just workers, saying, “your education system expresses what you stand for as a society.”

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said education is more important than it has ever been and it is now the biggest determinant of a country’s success or failure.

“Involving the private sector in education was certainly a good idea; the benefit of the public sector is that it helps the people who need help. But it is not good at innovating. A range of providers allows you to see what works and learn from that.”

The Group Chief Executive, WPP Plc, UK, Sir Martin Sorrel, said key element of taking collective responsibility for public education is partnership with the private sector, adding that technology is going to unleash education talent over the coming years. “It has to be jointly with the private sector.”

Discussing the topic ‘Are We Becoming too Focused on STEM Education’, Anna Winthrop of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University, said focusing solely on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is not only detrimental to students, but also inefficient, adding that teaching through the arts helps students learn on a deeper level; retain information longer; and is effective at reaching different types of learners.

“The arts provide social, emotional and physical benefits that greatly impact students’ behaviour and their ability to function well. Students involved in the arts have a more positive attitude to school and statistics shows that arts has the greatest impact for students coming from underprivileged backgrounds.”

The Head of the Centre of Teaching and Learning of the same institution, Nancie Atwell, acknowledged that STEM matters a lot, but at the expense of the arts it is risky and would narrow students’ worldview and the various options.

“Technology alone isn’t enough, but married with the liberal arts and humanity, it can bring the results that ‘make our hearts’. Public education was never intended as vocational training, why not education for whatever world students encounter after graduation? We need well-rounded citizens to make the future for our children and grandchildren.”

The Executive Secretary of the Association for the Development of Africa, Mrs. Oley Dibba-Wadda, expressed concern that Africa is supposed to be going places with STEM, but it is not, saying, “Africa cannot rise without a focus on STEM. There needs to be a balance, but we need to respond to demand versus supply. STEM allows us to evolve and grow.

The ‘Global Teacher’ awardee, Hanan, 43, who dedicated her award to all teachers in her country, thanked the foundation and the prime minister for the gesture, saying: “We the Palestinian teachers struggle every day in the face of occupation. Our role as educators becomes very complex because of it. We see the suffering in our children’s eyes.”