This year, while the UN General Assembly was meeting, MissingSchool joined millions of other people and organisations to unite in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of the key themes in focus was Inclusion – and everyone in the MissingSchool community has a vital role to play in supporting school inclusion for children who experience complex medical and mental health conditions. In 2015, the United Nations convened to endorse the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Also referred to as the Global Goals, these represent seventeen interconnected objectives designed to “provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” As part of our tireless campaign to support school inclusion for sick kids, we recently worked with UNITE to respond to some of their questions and lend our voice to the growing chorus of organisations fighting for inclusion, justice, and prosperity. Here’s how the Q&A went – there’s plenty of points in here which can inspire hope for the future of school inclusion!
MissingSchool’s Work on the Sustainable Development Goals
Building a sustainable future for all means taking action today and flipping the current global narrative on everything from climate change and gender inequality to food insecurity. Zooming in on one priority, what challenge speaks to you the most and how are you and your organization uniting to act for the SDGs?
COVID-19 highlighted the profound impact that education gaps and lack of access to peers has had on the current generation of school children. However, there is a growing cohort of children who miss school due to complex medical/mental health conditions that continue to be overlooked. While quality health and education place third and fourth in our SDGs, in schools across developed countries up to 30% of students have health conditions serious enough to affect their education and attendance. Many millions of children in homes and hospitals are experiencing avoidable isolation from their schools, teachers and peers. Founded in 2012, MissingSchool’s mission is to get game changing learning and social connections for students with health challenges to “business as usual” in their schools. Aligned with the SDGs, our Seen&Heard campaign is connecting these students to school through telepresence technology, deploying digital learning communities for families and teachers, and working on world-leading research.
This year marks the half-way point to Agenda 2030 and yet indicators show that progress on the SDGs is lagging. Only about 12% of the Goals are currently on track while close to 50% are moderately or severely off track. What do you want to see happen right now in your sector that can contribute to inverting this negative trend and putting us back on the right path?
Despite the UN rights, and efforts from educators and parents, the gap between positive intentions and school support for students with serious health conditions remains. Waiting isn’t an option. There is “no safe threshold for absence”, and the global rise in chronic illness and trend of school refusal underline the urgency.
Just as schools provide wheelchair ramps, they must adopt synchronous telepresence technology. It offers students with medical absences continuity of classroom access, consistent curriculum, equality of opportunity, and learning alongside peers. Telepresence lets teachers teach lessons once. Telepresence cures absence.
The recent pandemic emphasised the essential role of technology during health crises. Schools, post-COVID, can turn “telepresence” back on and follow workplaces into the 21st century by championing a “learn from anywhere” system for students who can’t physically attend. This change is not only necessary, it’s immediately achievable at scale. The technology is already in schools.
Despite some discouraging news on SDG progress, we are nonetheless hopeful that, when united for action, we can affect positive change. And we know this just by looking at the thousands of application submissions we receive each year for our UN SDG Action Awards, which celebrate mobilizers, inspirers, and changemakers. Which individual or initiative inspires you to take action and continue to work towards a better future for all?
Every day, we see schools introducing innovations that support students isolated by illness, ensuring their academic and social connection. Creative approaches include building mazes in the classroom to let kids using telepresence robots play hide and seek. Other teachers have created colouring-in books to explain the absence of a student to their young peers.
These acts, stemming from educators’ desire for positive change, spotlight the agility and adaptability of schools. Often by necessity, teachers implement “best on ground” solutions decades faster than education administrators can think of them. The exciting potential is in leveraging this ingenuity to unlock change at scale.
If we can find a way to rapidly channel the collective wisdom of what works, across schools, we will see school-based innovations completely transforming education systems. Inspired by this, I see the future of schools as flexible learning centres, where each student, however different, is seen, heard, and included.
Innovation is key to ensuring that our sustainable future is also inclusive. What are the novel trends and opportunities that you think will be game-changing for SDG Action?
Terrific changes are happening in the field of robotic telepresence, and organisations we work with, like OhmniLabs, are innovating their robots every day. Using these robots, the kids can share lunchtime and other special moments (or rites of passage) with their friends and, critically, enjoy the “normal” childhood experience of play.
Robots are immersive, and give students incredible agency over their life at school. We know from our data that having a telepresence service in place for these students can reduce their anxiety and support eventual transition back to school when they are well.
That said, making telepresence connections readily available to students worldwide is a no-brainer. Introducing everyday access to telepresence connection, whether via webconferencing platforms (think, Teams and Zoom), robots, or other technologies, will open avenues so that every student, whatever their circumstances, can remain part of their school community as a matter of “business as usual”.
For many, the quest for an equitable and sustainable future starts from within. What has been a key turning point in your life? What have you learned from this that gives you hope for the current turning point we find ourselves in?
In 2010, my son Darcy’s school isolation, from life-threatening illness, was a stark revelation. Missing two years of school while battling his condition, Darcy’s yearning for the simple joys of school-life became my motivation. This propelled me to assist children absent from school due to medical/mental challenges.
By 2012, three mothers, including me, founded the nonprofit MissingSchool in an Australian lounge room. With determination, MissingSchool has reconnected close to 6,000 classmates. It’s a collective effort of our talented and dedicated team and the resilience of the children we serve. My journey demonstrates the impact ordinary individuals can make.
Having achieved Australian Government funding, MissingSchool is now working to scale telepresence in schools, digital training tools for parents, teachers, and peers, and pioneering the National Insights for Education Directories – an alliance of organisations at the intersection of health and education. Presence is power, and all children can be seen and heard.
Uniting for School Inclusion
Since 2015, over 142 million actions have been taken around the world by thousands of organisations in 191 countries. MissingSchool – with our Seen&Heard Initiative – is glad to support this movement to galvanise change for good. Together, we can build the world envisaged by the SDGs, brick by brick, and help all kids get access to inclusive education and wellbeing alongside their healthcare. What do you UNITE for? Join us and millions of others UNITING to ACT4SDGs for a more just, equitable, peaceful, inclusive, sustainable future.