The Leaders of Today: 2015 Global Education Countdown Summit

Yang Jiang/A World at School

Walking into the 2015 Global Education Countdown Summit on April 10 in Washington, DC, it was easy to identify the most important people in the room. They were the ones followed closely by bodyguards with earpieces, with SUVs waiting at the ready outside. No doubt, many people in the packed room had come to hear Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations; Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Envoy on Global Education and the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Sarah Brown, Co-founder of the A World at School Initiative (pictured); Jim Kim, President of the World Bank; and CNN’s Isha Sesay. And they were worth coming to see—they spoke compellingly about the need to take on education in a globally coordinated way, and reminded us of the stark facts:

   ·  Across the globe, there are 250 million children who are unable to read or write.

   ·  Just 56% of youth who have completed primary school can read

   ·  Fewer than 75% of teachers are trained according to national standards

   ·  1.6 million more teachers are needed to achieve Universal Primary Education by 2015


These powerful global luminaries made it clear to the community of policy makers, grassroots campaigners, communication experts, and activists at the A World at School event that the situation is dire. The millennium development goals set out to achieve universal primary education by the end of 2015 but at the current rate of progress, most of us will no longer be living by the time the last girl is enrolled in primary school.

At the end of the day, after multiple sessions designed to unite and inspire the broader education community to infuse more investment and coordination into our worldwide education efforts, it was the incredible rallying cries of the 18 Global Youth Ambassadors that demonstrated the true urgency of this work. Student leaders from around the world rose to share their stories, convey their utter conviction, and galvanize the audience by imploring, “Can we count on you?” 

We heard from Jenny Zhong who was born in China and immigrated to the US as a child. Throughout her childhood, Jenny attended eight different schools as her family repeatedly moved from location to location in their quest for a better life. As a former student of schools in both wealthy and poor communities, she gained a deep understanding of the impact of good teaching. “No matter the environment,” she shared, “children everywhere need a quality education. I can say it made all the difference for me.”

A young woman from Sierra Leone named Fatmata told the story of her mother, who dreamed of becoming a doctor but was forced into marriage at age 14. “She cried and tried to fight,” Fatmata explained. “She tried to run away but she had no choice. The hopes and dreams were gone. She was now the wife of a man she had not met until that afternoon.” Inspired by her mother’s experience, Fatama organized a girls club to speak out against child marriage in her town, where up to 60 percent of girls are forced into marriage—and away from an education and the ability to fulfill their dreams—before they turn 18.

Malala Yousafzai’s friends Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz—the two girls who were also injured in the fateful October 2012 bus attack in Pakistan—spoke about why violence won’t stop them from pursuing education for all. They had us on our feet and raising our hands as we cried: “Yes! You can count on us!” (In reference to why Malala herself was not in attendance, Gordon Brown stated simply, and profoundly, “She’s in school.")

The Youth Ambassadors’ call to action brought to mind conversations I had engaged in just one week earlier, 5,000 miles away, in Santiago Chile. Representatives from across the Teach For All network were there to celebrate EnseƱa Chile’s fifth anniversary and to focus on what’s next for the organization: How can they drive the systemic change necessary to meet the needs of all students in Chile. In one session, we heard from Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric, and Ignacio Gonzalez, three leaders of the student protests that took place during the “Chilean Winter” of 2011 and succeeded in putting education at the center of the nation’s political discourse. Their impassioned dialogue revealed the power of student leadership to drive profound change. 

The words of Jenny, Fatmata, and Shazia at the Summit, and Giorgio in Chile—four young people from four different continents who are utterly committed to ensuring that all children receive an excellent education—deepened my conviction that the leadership of individuals who rally and motivate change is absolutely fundamental to achieving this goal by 2015, 2020, or even 2050. Those of us working toward educational access and excellence for all need the engagement of political figures with bodyguards and SUVs, but we also need Jenny, Fatmata, Shazia, Giorgio and the thousands of others like them in Africa, Pakistan, Chile, the US and around the world. In the prescient words of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, “Often people say that ‘[they] are the leaders of tomorrow’. But they have already started their leadership today.”

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