Making ‘Transformation’ really transformative

Alex Kent, Co-CEO of Restless Development, reflects on the UN ‘Transforming Education Summit’, and what we need to do to get the world to listen.

Have you heard of ‘TES’?

Possibly not.  The Transforming Education Summit, known as ‘TES’ to those lucky enough to be in its inner circle, was hosted by the UN during this year’s UN General Assembly.  If it really had been transformational, rather than a disappointingly business-as-usual affair, then maybe you might have heard of it.

Last week I travelled back from New York, where I, with other representatives from Restless Development, pounded the streets, revelling in the post-lockdown, kid-free joy of in-person meet-ups every hour of the waking day in every corner of midtown Manhattan.  Alongside the Climate Action Week and Global Fund replenishment meeting our eyes were on the long-awaited Transforming Education Summit. 

Never has education needed transformation more. Covid-19 school closures affected more than 1.6 billion learners.  Girls and young women have missed out the most – being the last to return to school and, according to the World Bank, 10 million girls are at risk of early marriage, with girls in Afghanistan now banned from schools. 

The mental health crisis among young people has reached unprecedented levels. It’s also worth a mention that we’ve now missed one of the first SDG targets 8.6, to decrease the number of young people not in education, employment or training. Not only has the global community failed to meet this target, appallingly the number of NEETs has instead increased.  But no one batted an eyelid.

The Missing Majority.

Young people are not only locked out of the school gates, they are also locked out of the spaces to do something about it.  It’s a pattern that we’re seeing time and time again. Young people (who make up a majority of the world today, and future generations)and especially young people most impacted, are not in these spaces.  TES was no different. Whilst there were young people present, these were not young people most impacted by the crisis. 

Youth engagement at TES was not at all reflective of young people; who have been both impacted by poor quality education and climate crisis, yet are also innovating, adapting their livelihoods, painting classrooms, running green groups, debating societies, out-of-school clubs, girls groups, and more.   With these young people missing, it should be no surprise that political ambition, commitment, investment and action were too.

Have you seen this person?  Young people are not being heard in decision-making spaces. #MissingMajority.

What went wrong?

Poor process and planning.  Despite a long lead in time, the process was where TES fell short, with a lack of clear opportunities to engage young people most affected both in the run-up and during TES.  Limitations on UN passes, difficulty in getting visas, and prohibitive costs of flights and accommodation, especially at last-minute prices, create the perfect storm to keep young people out.

The opaque, impenetrable, education bubble.  The long-standing education sector is made up of many of the same, well-meaning, institutions, organisations and individuals.  Lacking the dynamism, and creativity that “youth power” brings.  The ‘Road to TES roadmap’ did this no favours, lacking transparency and any opportunity to influence or interact along the way. 

Young people were an afterthought, not a priority.   Hosting a youth day as a separate day, without high-level representation, does not demonstrate meaningful youth engagement. If you ask young people to join a panel, at the last minute, without support, compensation or time to prepare, there’s no surprise that they may not feel able to join. And even with a young person on a panel, nothing demonstrates an uneven playing field quite like putting them last to speak and cutting them short when you run out of time, as happened at the ‘Unlock’ side event.

The summit resulted in launching seven initiatives, the last being empowering young people to be effective leaders to shape education.  But young people don’t need further commitment from older people to be ‘empowered’.  Instead, global summits such as TES could go a long way by acknowledging youth power already exists, and then working with young leaders to draw youth power into its core.  If we are to truly make these spaces ‘transformational’, this is the bare minimum needed.

How many more generations are you willing to sacrifice?”

Malala challenged attendees to use the power they hold to create a more equal future.

On a more positive note.

We know how to do this:  There’s a wealth of experience and learning on how to strengthen meaningful youth engagement and youth leadership in these spaces.  Restless Development’s recent challenge paper for Unlock the Future gives 10 clear steps of how we can better resource and support youth-led change.  Global systems have done this better in the past, look at the Post-2015 participatory youth engagement, or more recently the Generation Equality Forum’s youth journey

The Big Education Conversation was and will continue to be a great example of how we can foster actual engagement for everyone (and not a one-way talk shop).

Meanwhile, there is exciting, powerful youth leadership already happening, especially across Africa.  Powerful leaders like Sierra Leone’s Minister of Education David Sengeh are forging the way, inspiring and reaching out to young people to lead.

Youth leadership brings creativity, dynamism, innovation and change and there are many ways that member states, institutions and donors can throw open their doors to support youth power

What’s next?

  • COP27 is around the corner.  We’re not holding out much hope, again with visa delays, hikes in accommodation costs, limited funding for youth participation, and plans to, yet again, keep youth separate in a ‘Youth Pavilion’ or a room dedicated to protesting. 
  • We do however have a year to go until the twin summits: the Summit of the Future and the UN SDG Summit, that’s 12 months to get this right.  Watch this space for our recommendations on what a youth power UN summit could look like.
  • Of course, young people aren’t waiting around for global processes or moments to get this right.  We’ll be hosting a series for What’s the Big Idea? – what will it take to get our leaders to listen?   If you have ideas we would love to hear them!

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Making ‘Transformation’ really transformative

by Alex Kent Reading time: 4 min