Remarks by UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell during the opening plenary of the Transforming Education pre-summit

Excellencies, dear colleagues, distinguished guests,

I am honored to be here today on behalf of UNICEF at a time of great urgency for the children we serve.

I want to thank Secretary-General Guterres and Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed for galvanizing global action to restore learning for millions of children – and transform education for every child. Your leadership is essential.

No one here has any illusions about the scale of the challenge that awaits us. We know the world was already facing a learning crisis before the pandemic – but the pandemic has made a bad situation much worse. We are on the verge of a learning disaster.

Imagine a class of 30 10-year-olds. So many promises, so much enthusiasm to learn.

But now imagine that more than 20 of those 10-year-olds still couldn’t read a simple sentence on a blackboard.

Imagine that many of them never learn to read or do math or go further in their education.

Imagine how many of them will simply give up and never learn the skills they need to move from the classroom to employment, independence and leadership in their communities and countries.

We don’t really need to imagine any of this, because the evidence that it’s starting to happen is undeniable. And the potential impact on the future of children is huge.

In strictly economic terms, unless we take action to reclaim learning, this generation of students stands to lose $21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings, equivalent to 17% of today’s global GDP.

And that statistic doesn’t begin to describe the less tangible benefits that children may miss out on. The joy of learning. The self-respect that mastery can engender in a child. Optimism and hope for future learning can inspire.

Anyone who has ever seen children attending makeshift schools in refugee camps, or girls receiving an informal education in places that do not allow them to go to school, or children with disabilities – the most excluded of all – in class with their peers saw this joy and enthusiasm for learning, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Excellencies, we owe it to these most vulnerable children to act – before our window closes and this enthusiasm dies.

If we don’t want children and young people to bear the cost of this pandemic for the rest of their lives, we need to invest in learning recovery — now.

Too few countries have fully focused on the urgent need for ambitious learning recovery plans – or allocated adequate funding to address learning loss.

This lack of investment and action will leave millions of children behind, ill-equipped for the future. And societies will also pay the price, with slower growth, growing inequality and increasing fragility.

As we prepare for the September Summit, UNICEF is calling for greater focus, increased funding and rapid action in five key areas.

We need to reach every child and keep them in the classroom. We need to assess where they are in their learning. We must prioritize teaching the fundamentals of all future learning. We need to invest in remedial support to help children catch up and progress and we need to build stronger systems to support children’s mental health and wellbeing.

And in everything we do, we must focus more resources on the most excluded and marginalized children. They have been left behind for too long.

It’s a pivotal moment. The need for action has never been clearer. The spotlight is on education and the learning crisis. Partners from all sectors are motivated and mobilized to support this effort. Educators, families, students and youth work collectively to demand and drive change. We need to make the most of this moment.

I doubt there is anyone in this room whose life has not been changed by the opportunities their upbringing has made possible. And I think we all understand that education is the key to unlocking the limitless potential of this generation of children.

Let’s work together to put this key in their hands.


Helen D. Jessen