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22 Mar 2023
Rita Locatelli

A Critical Look at the “New Social Contract” for Education in UNESCO’s Faure and Futures of Education Reports

In this blogpost, Rita Locatelli relates the idea of the “social contract” that is central to UNESCO’s recently published report “Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education” to the 1972 Faure Report, UNESCO’s first report on the future of education.[1]

Fifty years after the publication, in 1972, of Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow, otherwise known as the Faure Report, many of its ideas still appear to be relevant today. To mark this anniversary, a special issue guest-edited by Maren Elfert and Alexandra Draxler was published in the International Review of Education with the aim of reflecting on the contributions and limits of the vision of education for the future outlined in the work of the International Commission on the Development of Education chaired by Edgar Faure.

In 2021, UNESCO published the reportReimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education, produced by the International Commission on the Futures of Education, which represents the third report on the future of education put forward by UNESCO, after the 1972 Faure Report and the 1996 Delors Report. This third report refers to the idea of the “new social contract” as a means of transforming education and of achieving greater cooperation towards more sustainable futures. In recent years, the call for a new social contract is related to an appeal for greater cooperation among societal actors, as also put forward by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. On Nelson Mandela International Day in July 2020, in the aftermath of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, he highlighted the need to counter a vision of society and of the economy which has produced ever-increasing inequality worldwide by building “a new social contract for a new era”.

Against the background of these recent references to the “new social contract”, it is worthwhile going back to UNESCO’s 1972 Faure Report. Although not explicitly mentioned, this concept permeates the report’s political framework for re-establishing the relationship between education and society, based on a strong belief in an educational democracy which considered citizens as real agents of change. Indeed, the concept of the “new social contract” was central in the political and intellectual work of the chairman of the commission that produced the report, Edgar Faure, and therefore had a strong influence on the elaboration of the ideas contained in the report.

There are however some differences in the way this concept is outlined in the two UNESCO reports. The new social contract called for by Faure represented an attempt to go beyond the classical social contract theory which referred to the process of state formation and was intended to ensure the security and the protection of the freedom and rights of citizens. The adoption by Edgar Faure of a more progressive interpretation of this contract gave greater consideration to the active role of citizens in shaping the society in which they live and laid greater emphasis on solidarity and cooperation among individuals, reflecting the principles of distributive justice, human rights and human capabilities.

Faure’s new social contract had clear philosophical and political contours: it was based on a strong humanistic perspective, which was at odds with more instrumental approaches to education based on human capital theory and constituted the basis of the analysis and reflections on the urgency to radically rethink learning systems from the perspective of lifelong education within learning societies. The essential purpose of education, as expressed in the title of the report Learning to be, indicates the full development of individual citizens as the necessary condition for the effective functioning of modern democracies. Hence, the political character of education was widely emphasised in the report. During the 1972 press conference at which the Faure Report was launched, a journalist asked whether the strategies mentioned in the report were to be applied in a neutral ideological terrain. Faure replied to that provocation by asserting that the theories developed by the Commission he chaired could be applied in any ideological/political domain as long as it was characterised by the quest for true democracy in education.

In contrast, UNESCO’s recent Futures of Education report seems less explicit about its political vision and does not assign the same urgency to democracy as the Faure Report did. It emphasises the public character of education by affirming that “public education is education that occurs in a public space, promotes public interests, and is accountable to all” and considers the concept of education as a public endeavour and a common good as one of the principles for governing the new social contract for education. Nevertheless, neither the concept of the new social contract, nor the principle of education as a common good are clearly defined, and this results in a lack of political discussion regarding the relationship among the institutions that should govern the new social contract for education. It would therefore be helpful to critically analyse the structures of power that may influence the re-visioning of the new social contract so as not to reinforce marginalisation and the reproduction of inequalities.

Having said this, the Futures of Education Report places greater emphasis on the interdependencies among human beings and with the planet than the two previous UNESCO reports and highlights the relational dimensions of education seen as an intrinsically shared societal endeavour. The humanistic approach of this third UNESCO Report appears therefore to be based on a collective and cooperative dimension of education expressed in the idea of togetherness. In contrast, “the humanism of the Faure report is individualistic before it becomes collective and political”. With this in mind, it could be argued that the new social contract called for by Edgar Faure remained mainly framed within a transactional individualistic perspective. In education, the main focus of the Faure Report was on the “human condition” and on learners seen as real agents of change. In that regard, the new social contract for education called for in the latest UNESCO report suggests a paradigm shift from a transactional to a relational model which relies on the collective and interconnected dimension of society. In this light, it distinguishes itself by addressing not only governments, but a wide range of stakeholders involved in education, thus reflecting the growing complexity of governance of education.

International reports are of course products of the times in which they are written, and the concept of the social contract will probably continue to undergo new interpretations in the future. Despite its limitations, the claim made in the Faure Report regarding the need for a political debate on the nature of education and its relationship to society and democracy is now more relevant than ever. Today, for the new social contract for education to be truly transformative, a substantial discussion on how shared governance can be realized and how responsibilities should be distributed has to follow. In view of this, UNESCO has invited thinkers, researchers, educators, and practitioners to engage in such a discussion on the governance imperatives of a new social contract for education, whose contributions will be collected in a publication to be released later this year.


[1] This blogpost draws on the article Faure’s new social contract fifty years later: Promises and evolutions, published in the International Review of Education, 68,  731–746.

This blog post is related to a previously published NORRAG Highlights, titled “What Does it Mean to Build a New Social Contract for Education? An invitation to Think, Act…and Write!“, by Elena Toukan.


The author

Rita Locatelli is a researcher at the Department of Education of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, where she collaborates with the UNESCO Chair “Education for Human Development and Solidarity among Peoples”. Her research centres on education policies in relation to development and international cooperation with a particular focus on inclusion, participatory processes in education, democratic governance and citizenship, also at the higher education level.

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