In this NORRAG Highlights, Elena Toukan from UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative discusses the idea of a new social contract for education, which was proposed in the flagship report Reimagining Our Futures Together: A new social contract for education. The socio-political agreement at the heart of education systems requires reimagination, to probe why, how and for what purpose education is organized. This discussion leads to a call for think-pieces (due 31 January 2023) for a forthcoming volume that will explore, from different perspectives, the governance imperatives of a new social contract for education, to be published in the lead-up to the United Nation’s Summit of the Future.
In 2021, the International Commission on the Futures of Education released its report Reimagining Our Futures Together, calling for a new social contract for education. Interestingly, this call coincided with the United Nation’s Secretary-General’s report Our Common Agenda, which calls for a renewed social contract between governments and their citizens, anchored in human rights. Both of these reports were central reference documents to the UN’s recent Transforming Education Summit held in New York in September 2022, bringing together heads of state and other stakeholders to elevate education on the global political agenda, as well as to “sow the seeds to transform education in a rapidly changing world.”
A core idea, then, to the transformation of education is that the socio-political agreement at the heart of education systems requires reimagination. Put another way, if the transforming of education is the harvest we hope for, the shared social contract guiding educational purpose and practice is its roots. But what does a social contract mean in education? And what might building a new social contract for education look like in action?
Probing principles, trends, and assumptions
One way to think about reimagining a social contract for education is to probe those assumptions and principles that underlie why, how and for what purpose education is organized. Today’s educational systems continue to rely on historical answers to these very questions.
The industrial societies of the early 20th century, for example, saw education as a means for generating a productive workforce and rallying national identity. The basic agreement that the school served to strengthen the social, economic, and civic fabric of the polity to which one belonged was implicit in the participation of students, families, teachers, governments, and others. The latter half of the century saw a rise in neoliberal trends in education that elevated the human capital rationale of educational investment, promising competitive advantage, innovation, and economic growth. As a consequence, education systems also perpetuated prevailing development models based on limitless production and consumption and the exploitation of human beings and the planet.
These trends are at odds with the principles of a new social contract for education that sees education as a human right and a common good, reflecting a wide diversity of ways of knowing. As the International Commission argued in its report, seeing education in this way is vital to enabling education to help address the increasingly interconnected challenges humanity is facing today and in the future. Recognizing the disconnect between these shared societal goals on one hand, and increasingly narrow and market-oriented trends on the other, can open opportunities to imagine a new social contract for education, and to deliberate on the principles and purposes that could guide its future expressions.
Reimagining assumptions into action
Today, prevalent trends in educational governance have created critical pitfalls in education at a time when human capacity is most needed as our greatest renewable resource. While it has long been hoped that education could fulfill a range of crucial purposes – promoting equality, justice, social cohesion, creative problem solving, and active citizenship, for example – many of these aims have been sidelined or even eroded by neoliberal trends. Aspirations for cooperation are undercut by competition, and social wellbeing is supplanted by individualism.
To take an example, an education system premised on market competition and individualistic performance will incentivize pedagogies and teaching conditions that discourage supporting others to succeed or “get ahead.” An education system premised on a cooperative approach to education as a common good, on the other hand, will prioritize cooperative pedagogies, collaborative approaches to teacher development and support, and reimagine the school as a reflection of society’s commitment to shared wellbeing and intergenerational solidarity.
An invitation to act, think…and write!
The idea of a new social contract for education risks being seen as simplistic – yet another buzzword. Reflection, analysis, and collective action are needed. Many detailed examples of such principles translated into practical implementation are found throughout the Reimagining our Futures Together report, addressing pedagogy, curricula, the teaching profession, schools and learning environments, and learning throughout life. Importantly, the Report does not propose a blueprint for a new social contract for education, but rather sees it as an invitation for all education stakeholders to engage in public debate, policy dialogue, research, innovation and action to transform education.
Furthermore, UNESCO’s Futures of Learning and Innovation team is launching a call for researchers, educators, and practitioners to contribute 1000-2000 word think-pieces that explore, from different perspectives, the governance imperatives of a new social contract for education. Submissions will be peer-reviewed, and a selection will be published in a volume to appear in advance of the UN’s Summit of the Future. Submissions must be received by 31 January 2023, and the full Call for Think Pieces can be found here: https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/news/submit-think-piece-governance-imperatives-new-social-contract-education
Characterized by cooperation and solidarity, concerned with widespread participation and the establishment of trust, and committed to justice in all of its aspects, it is clear that education will require new forms of leadership, prioritization, participation, and policy reform across its systems, processes, and objectives. Many are already doing this work, and a global movement to transform education will need to draw on all of them.
Dr. Elena Toukan is a Research Specialist with UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative. She holds a PhD in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Futures of Education initiative website: https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/
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UNESCO YouTube https://www.youtube.com/user/unesco
 United Nations Transforming Education Knowledge Hub, https://www.un.org/en/transforming-education-summit