Why Education Must Come First: Global Education and Skills Forum

If I asked you what I was referring to when I said 'The global crisis,' the chances, given the age we live in, is that you'd probably think I was speaking about the global financial crisis. If not, you'd probably move next to the global health care crisis, neither of which was what I was referring to. So, doesn't it seem alarming that something that is so close to us -- personal -- doesn't even factor as a crisis even though it is.

I'm referring to the global education crisis.

Let's take the facts:

• More than 750 million people are illiterate

61 million primary school-aged children are out of school, and 71 million children out of lower secondary school

• An estimated 200 million primary school children struggle to read even basic words

• As many as 250 million children could be failing to read and write by the time they reach age 10

Estimates are that the world needs almost 7 million new trained teachers by 2015 just to address primary education

• Between 2008 and 2010, the number of out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 1.6 million

So, if these alarming figures are true, why is it that no one is doing anything about it?

In health care, last week we learned about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation forming a partnership with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to finally eradicate the scourge of polio; not so long ago, this was seen primarily as the role of governments and organizations like the UN.

The Gates Foundation, and Bill Gates personally, has done an incredible job in bringing focus on solving some of the biggest health care challenges we face, today.

In my view they've brought new ways of thinking, entrepreneurial zeal and a focus on measuring what's broken so we then know how to fix it. Polio is just one example. They've disrupted the normal order of dealing with these matters.

We need the same disruption in education. The overwhelming evidence points to the inability or motivation of governments to challenge the status quo. Are NGO's able to leverage their expertise? And is there a role for the private sector?

These are some of the questions being posed at the Global Education & Skills Forum that's taking place in Dubai, UAE March 15-17 where a number of substantive leaders are coming together to discuss whether public-private partnerships in education can work more effectively.

We'll get an opportunity to speak to global leaders like President Clinton, Tony Blair, Olesegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and the Presidents of some of the poorest and most desperate places on our planet what they think. Likewise, we'll have some pretty big captains of industry who will tell us of their experiences of what makes PPP in education work.

This conference will differ from others in that the political elite will be able to share what worked, and what didn't in their reform journeys -- their experience will help shape what interventions they think would work.

In my role as Chief Executive of the Varkey GEMS Foundation, I'm often asked about the role of technology in education. With the participation of leaders from EdX, Cisco, Microsoft, the American Institutes of Research, and GEMS Education, I'm keen to learn what role the private sector can play in ensuring teachers are able to do what they are paid for -- to teach; how parents can become more engaged in their child's development; and how will the 'school of the future' really address the needs of those who don't go to school today.

After all isn't that what public-private partnerships are about? We've passed the age where government's could do it all by themselves. This conference heralds a step change in thinking by inviting the private sector to contribute to the debate. A step that could make the disruptive difference in education, just like Bill Gates has done in health care.

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