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World Teachers' Day: Teachers key to meeting major Commonwealth challenges

LONDON, UK, 5th October 2006 - Speech by Rt Hon Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General, World Teachers’ Day Conference (‘Optimising Commonwealth Teacher Potential’)(Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth Teachers’ Grouping, National Union of Teachers), Marlborough House, London, UK.

‘Education, education, education’ – you know the saying…

Education is the key to everything. To peace and democratic stability, to jobs and economic growth, to good health, to respect and harmony between the sexes and between different faiths, ethnic groups and communities. It is the key to literally billions of unique human beings fulfilling their unique potential.

And teachers are the key to education. You can have a school without a building, without books and pens and desks and blackboards. But you can’t have a school without a teacher. It’s as simple as that.

Every one in this room will have unforgettable experiences of being shaped by wonderful teachers, or perhaps by bad ones. I have three siblings, five aunts and two uncles who are teachers, so I know about the pressures on teachers – as well as the value of what they do.

So on World Teachers’ Day we warmly salute teachers everywhere, and particularly in the Commonwealth. We are deeply in their debt – so are our children – so will be our grandchildren. 40 years ago came the UNESCO/ILO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers. But we knew their status 2400 years ago. Alexander the Great wrote that he was ‘indebted to his father for living, but to his teacher for living well’.

And the world faces two problems with its teachers – problems which are especially acute in Africa and in South Asia.

First, there simply aren’t enough teachers – that’s a big reason why so many children don’t go to school in the first place.

Second, the teachers that there are, are not trained to do their jobs properly – and that’s a big reason why so many children drop out of school before their time.

There is crisis at the level of teachers. Consider this: two years ago, 4,000 South African teachers died of AIDS, and 21,000 left the country to seek a better life in pastures new.

And there is crisis at the level of pupils – you know the statistics as well as I. Of the 115 million children worldwide who don’t even go through primary school, two-thirds are in the Commonwealth. Of the 65 million girls out of primary school worldwide, again two-thirds are in the Commonwealth. 1 in 5 of our Commonwealth countries have a pupil/teacher class-size ratio above 40:1.

Then look further at two related facts. First, that 60% of global HIV/AIDS cases are in our Commonwealth, and that most of those are in the 15-24 age bracket. Second, that well over half of our 1.8 billion people are under the age of 25.

A picture forms: most of the world’s challenges in the field of young people and education are in the Commonwealth. And teachers are the key to meeting those challenges.

Then consider the two education-related Millennium Development Goals: to achieve universal primary education; to achieve equal proportions of girls as boys in both primary and secondary school. Most Commonwealth countries have met both – so we can rightly deduce that there are a few countries where things are seriously awry. These are largely in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – in places like Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa.

So we in the Commonwealth know what our education challenges are. Of the six priorities we set ourselves at the 15th Meeting of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Edinburgh in 2003, the one to which I believe we bring the greatest level of expertise is that of supporting teachers. Retaining them where they are most needed; replenishing them where they are diminished; training them in their task.

Much of that work will form the basis of your discussion today.

I know you will refer to the exceptional ‘multi-grade’ teacher training modules which we have developed alongside the Association for Development of Education in Africa. Think what that word ‘multi-grade’ means – children of all ages and all abilities in one class. And you’ll realise the importance of those new modules, which have been so successfully taken up.

I know you will be brought up-to-date on the September 2004 Commonwealth Teacher Recruitment Protocol to manage voluntary teacher migrations. We should all be proud that it has prompted the UK to revisit its own procedures, by demanding more of the recruitment agencies which are responsible for the Commonwealth teachers who come to work in this country. We should be proud that it has been the basis of bilateral agreements for teacher exchanges between places like Kenya and Rwanda. We should be proud that governments, NGOs like Education International, and international organisations like the ILO have recommended its adoption.


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