Young people can drive our economies and societies to be more vibrant and productive. At the same time, their potential can only be realized if they benefit from quality education from early childhood to adolescence and beyond. Providing creative and effective learning environments is thus an ongoing challenge in the East Asia and Pacific (EAP) region.

A significant proportion of the regional economy is driven by a labour-intensive market, with technological progress, globalization and market-oriented reform central to the region’s rapid growth in the past two decades. An acknowledged prerequisite for developing this human capital is fostering more creative and innovative workforces, in part through youth entrepreneurship and a more flexible education programme. The EAP region is home to more than 2 billion people, and around 580 million of them are under 18 years of age. With around 277 million young people aged 10-19, according to the UNICEF database, the area accounts for more than 13% of the world’s adolescent population – a tremendous resource.

In its report The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World, the Education Commission shows that, by 2030, only 50% of young people in middle-income countries and only one in 10 young people in low-income countries will be on track to achieving basic secondary education. In the EAP region, over 27 million adolescent girls and boys are out of the education system. Despite significant improvements in expanding access to education over the past decades across the region, 7.2 million (4%) of children are out of school at primary level, 8.5 million (10%) at lower secondary level and 18.5 million (23%) upper secondary level, according to UNESCO.

Image: Source: HKTDC

21st-century skills

Improving learning, the uptake of 21st-century skills and employability in young people are critical issues for this region. While investments in second-decade education have been made, challenges to its efficacy remain. Learning has often not been responsive to the needs of young girls and boys, or to the critical changes and demands of modern economies. Learning contexts do not always contribute to skills development for adolescents, often adopting a non-consultative, linear approach that limits adolescent engagement. Key issues related to education-systems strengthening continue to be insufficiently addressed – such as improvements in data and the effective monitoring of progress; enhancing teachers’ capacity to base pedagogies on emerging science around adolescent brain development; inclusion of young people and communities in the learning process as collaborators; and offering robust programme support.

Transforming learning and skills for adolescents will require innovative and entrepreneurial approaches, such as looking at the relevance of artificial intelligence in the education sector, accessing knowledge and skills with technology, and considering the role of the private sector and social enterprises. The model of a traditional school may not respond to the needs of all adolescents, particularly those who are already out of the system, or those with creative minds.

Diverse challenges

While the burden of learning outcomes and readiness for work and life is often placed on education systems, they cannot be the only answer to the complex challenges faced by our societies. The EAP region is extremely diverse, accommodating vast economic differences as well as disparities in geography, gender equality and ethnicity. How do such disparities influence varied learning outcomes for young people? Exclusion from education and learning have, in most cases, strong gender elements. Few countries are investing in effective policies and programmes to prevent school-related gender-based violence, or promote menstrual hygiene management and comprehensive sexual education. In many countries, pregnancy in school-age girls results in them dropping out of education altogether. The adolescent birth rate in South-East Asia is presently at 47 births per 1,000 females aged 15-19 – higher than that of South Asia, where it currently stands at 35 births per 1000 females. Teen pregnancies and child marriages in ASEAN countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Laos present structural gender barriers that prevent young girls achieving their potential through education and learning, often forcing them into life choices that exclude them from a competitive labour market.

A girl sells native bracelets outside Cambodia's Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap.
A girl sells native bracelets outside Cambodia's Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap.
Image: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Evidence from global studies on out-of-school children shows that, in several countries in the region and beyond, there are opportunity costs to education and/or out-of-pocket expenditures that constrain access to quality education for marginalized groups. Poor families are often forced to make difficult choices when it comes to secondary and tertiary education. Considerations such as road safety and lack of access to safe public transport for young girls and boys can impact families’ decisions over whether to invest in second-decade education. The most prominent and best-researched possible solutions include: social protection programmes that focus on reducing indirect and opportunity costs for families, including the elimination of school fees; provision for cash transfers (conditional and unconditional); and programmes offering scholarships and stipends. Public-private partnerships, such as initiatives like the voucher systems, have often enabled students from poor communities to stay in the education system.

A platform for innovation

Finally, in a region driven by entrepreneurship and technology, creativity and self-expression by adolescents and youth are major spurs to innovation. There is widespread recognition of the importance of active participation of children and adolescents within education and learning structures and its positive influence on the development of skills and competencies, social relationships and long-term mental and physical health. Active learning opportunities and adolescent engagement is critical for adolescent empowerment and skills building, and for innovations and entrepreneurship to thrive. The potential and successes of young people can be enabled through investments in social enterprises, start-ups and incubators, among others. Collaboration and co-creation is critical between governments, research organizations, private sector bodies and civil society institutions that enable young people to have real influence on processes and decisions affecting their rights to education and a livelihood.

At UNICEF, we recognize that 21st-century skills are going to be crucial for the future, that schools must continue to harness academic and non-academics skills, and that opportunities must be provided for adolescents to develop both within and outside of education systems. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the education system alone cannot address the gamut of learning challenges we face. It must work with other areas of governance, including social welfare, health, local governance and transportation, and with the private sector, to effectively respond to the growing needs of EAP young people and societies in a fast-changing world.