International Day of Education celebrates the critical role that inclusive, equitable, and quality education and learning play in breaking the cycle of poverty, achieving equality, building lasting peace, and contributing to sustainable development. As UNESCO says: Education is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility.

Yet, many children and young people are denied this right: as many as 258 million do not attend school and 617 million cannot read and do basic math. As COVID-19 has exacerbated already existing inequalities in education and beyond, and is expected to affect the education for generations to come, this year’s theme for the Day is “Recover and Revitalise Education for the COVID-19 Generation.” As UNESCO explains, now is the time to step up “collaboration and international solidarity to place education and lifelong learning at the centre of the recovery.”

To celebrate International Day of Education, we asked our colleagues to reflect on the importance of education especially in supporting the drive towards sustainable cities and communities. Here is what our colleagues from Rwanda, South Africa, and Scotland have shared with us.

Education helps to more easily adapt to and innovate in the ever-changing world

“Availing stronger education systems and infrastructure in cities stimulate innovation, creativity and establishment of new ways to cope with new living conditions with minimal impact. In the ever-changing life environment of cities, only stronger education systems can instill a shift in mindset and awareness by forming the next generation of environmentally and socially conscious leaders who can help to mitigate the consequences of hazard linked with rapid urbanization.” Dr Vincent Manirakiza, University of Rwanda, Rwanda

“Education is a critical service for all city dwellers, of all ages, and at all stages in life. The onset of rapidly changing technology, the changing workplace, the imperative of switching employment, residential and other aspects of how we live under pandemics, all require both innate intelligence and education, whether formal, informal, or via educational institution, trade union, co-operative or any other form.” Prof David Everatt, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Education is critical for social cohesion

“… education is important for social trust and cohesion, especially in this age of rising inequality, discontent and the pandemic. Education helps people to go beyond their narrow horizons and short-term selfish interests to recognize their shared destiny and to strengthen the sense of common purpose in an increasingly connected world. In other words, education helps people to understand that we’re all in this together, so that caring for each other is in everyone’s best interests. This is especially important during the current twin health and economic crisis.” Prof. Ivan Turok, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

Education helps to address and redress injustices

“But it clearly matters most for the youth. In South Africa, we have developed an index of marginalization, which combines multiple indicators to try and understand the interior life of young people (it is now also applied to adults). The index includes ‘objective’ indicators – housing type, whether employed or not, and so on – and subjective indicators, including alienation, extreme racial views, deep mistrust of others, lack of engagement with any broader social issues, anomie, and so on. When the marginalization results are analysed using correspondence analysis, it is evident that the most marginalized young – and old – people in Johannesburg (and society more broadly) are those with no formal education at all. As education levels rise, so marginalization recedes.” Prof David Everatt, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Education helps to equip us with knowledge and skills to …
… contribute to economic development

“Education is fundamental to sustainable cities in so many ways. … an educated workforce is important for the prosperity of individuals and the wider city economy. Educated people are generally more productive and earn higher salaries. They enable businesses to thrive and to adapt to changing economic conditions, including coping with disasters such as Covid-19 and adopting new technologies.” Prof. Ivan Turok, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

… make informed decisions for the wellbeing of their cities

“… those better educated people are better able to engage with and contribute to their city and feel that the city cares for them (or at least offers them appropriate services). Sustainable cities rely ultimately on a well-educated population who can make informed decisions; and who are not beset by psycho-social issues that stop their full engagement with the society around them; and who are least likely to be willing or able to contribute to their city, or even their neighbours.” Prof David Everatt, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Education supports positive civic engagement

“… an educated citizenry is important to hold city governments to account. Education gives people the knowledge and wherewithal to be active citizens – asking tough questions of decision-makers and not tolerating misinformation and mismanagement. So, education is good for the health of local democracy and improves the quality of civic leadership.” Prof. Ivan Turok, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

Education is a solution to health issues and numerous other urban challenges

“Learning, health, inclusion, living productive lives and sustainable development are intimately connected, and require localised initiatives and joined up policy initiatives that recognise the particular characteristics of places. Healthy children are more likely to perform well at school and adults with high levels of educational attainment are more likely to find high quality employment. In turn ‘Good Places’ (with positive social, economic, cultural and physical environments) lead to better health. ‘Good places’ contain healthy people, who are more likely to enter learning, gain qualifications and become employed. Furthermore, they will then become more civically-minded and engaged citizens.” Prof Mike Osborne, University of Glasgow

The sustainable solution to health issues like Covid-19, together with other challenges of the cities including ever-increasing populations, crowded settlements, migration, unemployment, criminality to name a few is education.” Dr Vincent Manirakiza, University of Rwanda

and …

Education is the key to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

“Quality education develops capacities for dignity, self-respect, economic self-reliance, and active citizenship. It also is a critical foundation for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as education reduces poverty (Goal 1), improves health (Goal 3), increases gender equality (Goal 5), boosts economy (Goal 8), reduces inequality (Goal 10), builds peace and prosperity (Goal 16), and equips us with knowledge and skills to protect the natural environment (Goals 13, 14, 15).” Dr Yulia Nesterova, University of Glasgow

But… Not everyone in cities has access to quality education to benefit from the opportunities and advantages it offers.

“Education’s contribution to the development of sustainable cities is much more than just the aggregation of the advantages to the individual residents. But its capacity to contribute to more sustainable cities depends on how its benefits are created and distributed. We know that quality schooling is not distributed evenly in cities, with better schools generally situated in wealthier neighbourhoods. This contributes to divisions and perpetuates cycles of inequality.  Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods have the spatial advantage of being in the catchment areas of families with greater financial, cultural and social capital, with better-educated parents preparing children for school through material resources and an understanding of the pathways to better education and the success if brings. These parents are also well-placed to contribute materially to the school, and they know how to hold schools accountable and drive them to help already advantaged children achieve.  Teachers who have a choice about where to teach may prefer to work in this kind of environment.  These successful schools then attract wealthy parents to those neighbourhoods, drive up house prices, and so on. Without interventions at the policy and neighbourhood levels, the opposite can happen in poorer neighbourhoods.”

“There are exceptions to this general rule. We need to learn more about those exceptions and how to create and normalise them.  We need policies that support this.  School league tables and parental choice are the neoliberal solution – but these add not only to the inequalities noted above, they add to the perennial traffic problem in many cities, as parents commute their children to better schools outside their neighbourhoods.  We also need residents of all kinds of neighbourhoods to take a keen interest in their local schools.” Prof Michele Schweisfurth, University of Glasgow.

How can quality education and lifelong learning support and drive sustainable neighbourhoods?

“… the improvement of life chances in cities are vital, and reflective of the need to maximise the positive elements of urban spaces as well as combat the challenges of rapid and accelerating urbanisation: poverty, crime, environmental risks, poor health and inequitable access to learning.  An important vehicle for urban development is ‘learning city/region’, places within which stakeholders across sectors of education, businesses, the public sector, cultural organisations and NGOs co-operate to create cohesive and inclusive learning frameworks for all citizens to enable educational progression. However, we must remember that inside the learning city/region there is heterogeneity, and our educational interventions need to be nuanced at fine levels of geography, and ensure that they are reflective of the needs and demands of citizens. This suggests the importance of neighbourhood and the bottom-up co-construction of research-informed initiatives working with those who live there, and for their benefit.  This is a likely route to sustainable actions.” Prof Mike Osborne,  University of Glasgow

“Some radical but not unheard-of or impossible policies include:

– Teacher education programme selection processes which foreground social commitment, and teacher education curricula that focus on community development as well as raising ‘standards’ in the ‘basics’

– More sophisticated ‘value-added’ analyses which embrace difficult-to-measure outcomes from school learning including learning for environmental and social sustainability.

– Above all, all sectors in the urban space, including, for example, health and urban planning, need to work collaboratively with the education sector toward these common goals for urban sustainability. This sounds banal, but all too often they are operating in parallel universes.” Prof Michele Schweisfurth, University of Glasgow.