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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

The Global Education and Skills Forum honoured our unsung heroes

The great and the good gathered to recall the role education played in their own lives

The most moving and heart-wrenching segment of this year’s Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai was the surprise plenary featuring the survivors of the Parkland High School shooting in Florida on February 14, in which 17 people died. Victor Besa / The National
The most moving and heart-wrenching segment of this year’s Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai was the surprise plenary featuring the survivors of the Parkland High School shooting in Florida on February 14, in which 17 people died. Victor Besa / The National

Since its inception five years ago, the annual Global Education and Skills Forum has grown into one of the world’s leading conventions on education, drawing a stellar cast of speakers and thinkers and thrashing out the most forward-thinking strategies to tackle the most pressing issues in the sector. Today, it is “the Davos of education”, as former British prime minister Tony Blair said. Mr Blair recalled his own pessimism when the idea of such a forum was first mooted, which was quickly dissipated by the energetic efforts of the team at the Varkey Foundation. This year, its members managed to assemble a line-up consisting of former US vice president Al Gore, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, historian Simon Schama and Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton.

The celebrity guests reminded audiences of the important role that education and educators played in their own career trajectories. Many will relate to the experience of the young British actor Taron Egerton, who, faced with bullying at school, nearly gave up until a “superhero” teacher inspired him to continue. Theron made a heartfelt appeal for the allocation of greater resources. The focus on Stem subjects – science, technology engineering and mathematics – in our age of rising artificial intelligence threatens to eclipse the importance of the arts and humanities. But a rounded education requires an emphasis on both. This was the argument advanced by Professor Schama, who told audiences that, with the growth of AI, the “creative side of things will remain irreducibly human”. We cannot afford to sideline the arts. As Louvre Abu Dhabi reminds us, the arts are vital to our understanding of civilisations past and present.

The most moving and heartwrenching part of this year’s summit was the unexpected appearance of survivors of the high school shooting in Florida last month, in which 17 people were killed. As the US gun lobby gears up to resist regulation, students Suzanna Barna, Lewis Mizen and Kevin Trejos made a powerful plea for sensible gun laws. Their message is already echoing in the debates over guns in the US. As Lewis put it: “Teachers are there to educate their students. They shouldn’t have to serve as the first line of defence between them and a rampant gunman on campus.” But the truth is that every day teachers make enormous sacrifices for their pupils. The culmination of the forum was tonight's Dh3.67 million Global Teacher Prize, awarded to Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles teacher from London, who learnt the basics of the 35 languages spoken at her school. She was feted by an audience of more than 2,000 education, entertainment, business and government leaders in a lavish ceremony at Atlantis, The Palm, hosted by South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. Instituted in 2015, the award is unique in the world and has done a significant deal to raise the profile of unsung heroes around the world. The 10 finalists for this year’s prize spanned the globe. What they all have in common is selflessness and dedication – uncommon virtues that make teachers some of the most indispensable members of our society.