Too many children are struggling to learn basic skills at school. This international plan aims to change things

A group of children at school.

Literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional skills are the building blocks that children need to thrive. Image: Unsplash/CDC

Jaime Saavedra
Global Director, Education Global Practice
Robert Jenkins
Global Director of Education and Adolescent Development, UNICEF
Alicia Herbert
Director, Education, Gender and Equality Directorate (EdGE), FCDO
LeAnna Marr
Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator, USAID
Benjamin Piper
Head of Education, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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  • School closures because of the pandemic have worsened levels of child learning around the world, with large numbers struggling with reading.
  • There needs to be an enhanced focus on foundational skills such as literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional skills to give children the building blocks they need to thrive in school and throughout their lives.
  • The Commitment to Action on Foundation Learning provides a way for governments, international organizations, the private sector and the education sector to take joint action to support foundational learning.

Last week at the United Nations’ Transforming Education Summit (TES) world leaders, education experts, and activists spotlighted the urgency to recover pre-pandemic and COVID-related learning losses and agreed to ensure children all over the world are given the building blocks they need to go on to thrive in school.

We are confident that today’s youth, given the skills and opportunities, will lead us toward a peaceful, sustainable, and prosperous future. It is this hope that leads families and communities to make sacrifices to give our children the best start in life, specifically, the education they need to lead happy and productive lives.

We must be sure that children aren’t just in school, but that they are learning.

Unfortunately, the data shows that far too many children are still struggling to learn the basics. Even before the pandemic, more than half the 10-year-old children globally were not able to read and understand a simple sentence. After the school closures, global learning trajectories are getting worse: nearly two-thirds of all children globally cannot read with understanding. This is a learning crisis deepened so much by COVID-19 and increasing shocks from conflict and climate that the future prosperity of a generation and of nations is now threatened.

Despite the large numbers of children that remain out of school, the good news is that, since the pandemic, children are returning to school in larger numbers than originally anticipated. This is an opportunity to reset. The learning they have lost due to the failure of education systems before COVID and the impact of the pandemic needs to be recovered while their progress is accelerated. The average child in a low- or middle-income country will lose 10 percent of their average annual earnings over their working lives if we don’t get this right.

We know how to tackle this—we need to give children the basics they need to then build off of and the opportunities for them to continue to learn. They need foundational learning skills—the building blocks to thrive later in school and throughout their lives—literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional skills. Done well early on, these skills will set children up for a life of learning and create the conditions for school systems to also deliver on digital skills, scientific thinking, creativity, and communication skills that are essential to thrive in this century. As the Sierra Leone President, Julius Maada Bio, said at the TES spotlight session 2 on the learning crisis, “We all owe our children a future of promise in which, as productive citizens, they will continue to build just, inclusive, equitable and peaceful societies.”

There are practical examples of what works to help countries recover these losses and accelerate learning at scale: keeping schools open and increasing instruction time; correctly matching instruction to students’ levels of learning; focusing intensely on the foundations of literacy, numeracy, and core socio-emotional support; supporting teachers and giving them the tools they need to manage a more complex classroom and students with a diverse level of learning.

Children everywhere need to have strong education systems where we can all be confident that they are learning the basics, even in the face of shocks like COVID-19, climate change, and conflict.

In support of this, the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning is a crucial opportunity for governments, international organizations, civil society, the private sector, foundations, and the education sector to join together and take action to support foundational learning for all—basic literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional skills. As reflected by UK Minister of State for Development Vicky Ford MP, “Together, we can ensure we equip every child, everywhere with the foundational learning that sets them on a path to success, dignity, and freedom.”

Countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Sierra Leone, Egypt and Bulgaria have already formally endorsed the Commitment to Action. We are urgently calling for more countries to sign the Commitment to Action. If children do not gain the right foundational learning skills, their chances of achieving overall success and well-being are stunted from the start.

The clock is ticking, the time to act is now.


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