When education is discussed in the media or within social circles, we tend to share opinions about how it could be better. As a former primary school teacher, alumna of Teach First, and current staff member at Teach for Belgium, I too find myself falling into this trap, because it is easy to get bogged down in the problems, often systemic, that our school systems still face.
On this inaugural International Day of Education, however, let’s take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve already come, in both Belgium and the rest of the world.
In the 19th century, education was a privilege that only about one eighth of the population in most countries could enjoy. Due to free education for all in almost every country, currently 83 percent of the world is literate and projections show that by the end of this century, illiteracy will practically disappear. Furthermore, in the previous century, in many parts of the world women were still fighting to let girls come to school. Today, Unicef reports that in the majority of countries, as many girls as boys attend primary school. That is still far from gender parity, but it is progress.
This gender gap too has been closed in Belgium. In fact, studies from 2016 show that more women are pursuing tertiary education than men. Belgium ranks as one the top spenders on education in the EU (6,4% of GDP in 2016) and met its target of reducing early school leavers to 9.5% by 2016.
On a global scale, what is even more uplifting is that the population is getting smarter, as evidenced by a widespread increase in IQ scores. We are thriving in areas such as abstract thinking, learning new skills and solving unforeseen problems.
So I am hopeful. Education still faces many challenges but there are more minds available to tackle these challenges head-on than ever before. However, to accelerate this progress we need to revalue the teaching profession and give it a similar status in society as that enjoyed by doctors, lawyers and engineers. This way we will have the most talented people fighting for better and more equitable education, in addition to discovering new medicines, solving global environmental threats, and exploring space.
The Belgian government is already on the right track by investing in education heavily, but creative minds need to pool together to optimise these resources. We need the most motivated people fighting to close the equity gap in our schools and developing systemic ways of supporting new and experienced teachers to reduce drop-out rates and long-term absences.
Investing in the quality of education now will simultaneously tackle current and future challenges we face in other areas of society such as climate change, racism, discrimination, obesity, and drug abuse. That’s how I know I’m in the right sector: education is at the core of everything. Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful tool which you can use to change the world.” I couldn’t agree more.
Teach First alumni
Teach for Belgium team member