The Covid-19 pandemic has surfaced many social inequalities that we knew existed in our societies. For the education sector, these include deep disparities in environments conducive to effective at-home learning and inequities in access to technology.
An OECD report released yesterday, which surveyed 59 countries’ responses to Covid-related school closures, reveals that only half of students have been able to access all or most of the curriculum through remote learning materials during lockdown. And then, even if students have access to a device, a stable internet connection and enough data to download content, overcrowding means many find it hard to study at home. According to the OECD’s 2018 PISA assessment, on average, 9 percent of students do not have a quiet place to work at home and just over 60 percent have access to a home computer (dropping to 35 percent in lower income countries).
This digital divide is not just between high- and low-income countries. It exists within different socioeconomic groups of rich countries like the UK and the USA, between urban and rural communities, and between public and private schools in most countries.
The pandemic has also cast a spotlight on the previously underappreciated but critical roles of teachers. Parents and caregivers quickly had to become teachers, and teachers had to quickly innovate their methods to reach students and keep them engaged. Teachers have estimated that around 15% of their students dropped out of visibility during school closure, the majority of those are inevitably the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Approaches to reopening schools have caused confusion and heated debate, as countries employ different strategies, and evidence about young people’s resistance is inconclusive. While it is early days, there is some emerging evidence to suggest children are not as infectious as adults. But there are also emerging cases of reopened schools having outbreaks of the virus in Israel and France, for example. Reopening schools carries some risk of contagion; but not opening them risks significant ongoing damage to educational attainment and economic outcomes. The economic impact affects both young people and wider society, including through not enabling parents to go back to work. The OECD estimate, for example, that a year’s lost education equates to 7-10% in lost income over a lifetime. In some countries, gaps in schooling become too wide, and competing priorities will mean that young people do not return to education after school closure, widening existing inequalities.
No one, therefore, is arguing that reopening schools is not a priority - if and when schools can cope with the extra requirements and adjustments needed (in terms of the physical distancing and hygiene measures needed to make schools safer for children and staff) and when parents feel comfortable sending their children back. There are a growing number of mitigations being tested worldwide, building on learning from Ebola and the Education in Emergencies sector, including split-shifts, staggered start times and teaching outside.
However, one thing that is really clear – and that runs as a thread through the OECD’s report - is that education provision needs to change long-term in recognition that this is a protracted crisis, and that planning needs to start from that position. Many countries are acknowledging that the Covid response won’t be linear; that society, including schools and businesses, may need to open and close in waves to deal with future fluctuations, until a vaccine is found. (In Colombia, they are aptly terming this approach el acordeon – the accordion).
So, is Covid-19 really a wake-up call for the education sector? The crisis has overturned the status quo in many countries, including in those where critical reforms often stall in the face of structural or procedural issues that slow progress. This pause and political attention on continuing education and leaving no one behind offers a chance for education systems to make much-needed radical reforms. Across our Advisory work in Africa, we have worked with education ministers balancing delicate political and budgetary constraints to make changes to the ways in which education is thought about and delivered. Sometimes there is appetite for experimentation – take Teaching at the Right Level as an example – but it is reined in by short ministerial tenures, limited budgets and strict donor strategies. Now Covid-19 has come along and upended things, with a return to normal seeming unlikely in the near future at least. Going forward, finances will likely be even tighter given fiscal pressures globally, but perhaps this gives us an opportunity to demonstrate how we can do things differently – how we can do blended learning better; how we can embed remedial programmes to catch-up students left behind and get better at risk-assessing vulnerability; how governments can facilitate partnerships with tech companies that unlock access to digital learning. And if not now, then when?
It also provides an opportunity for rethinking priorities for education and how it is delivered. Two-thirds of curriculum content remained delivered through teachers during lockdowns, but the OECD report highlights how unprepared teachers were globally to deal with remote learning platforms, lacking training in online methods and use of technology. Many education systems are still also built around one-directional models in which teachers impart knowledge and students absorb it, largely disempowered as agents of their own learning. Planning for longer term disruptions should provide an opportunity to rethink the roles of teachers, and to reflect on how they are supported and what kind of professional development they need. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the skills young people of today will need in the future jobs market.
Along these lines, the Institute has been supporting Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education to establish an initiative to trial and scale innovations to improve literacy and numeracy for 250,000 primary school students and embed critical thinking and computational skills. To respond to Covid-19, the initiative is seeking proposals for distance learning and EdTech, including guidance for teachers, to continue this learning throughout school closures.
UNESCO has played a valuable role in collating best practices for remote learning through its #LearningNeverStops campaign, and our education programme, Generation Global, has experienced an increase in demand for teachers’ communities of practices. In April, we hosted over 300 teachers from 12 countries sharing ideas and tools for teaching at a distance and offering peer support. For lower resource countries, these innovations don’t necessarily mean internet-based learning. There have been numerous creative examples from middle- and low-income countries in Africa and Latin America where materials have been delivered in paper using community-based NGOs and enhanced by content transmitted by radio and TV combined with interactivity with teachers through helplines and SMS.
The pandemic has also given pause for thought over the content being taught. While half of the countries in the OECD report have prioritised academic learning, such as numeracy and literacy, others have also prioritised cognitive skills including social, emotional and wellbeing content. These skills remain critical to young people in order to thrive in globalised economies, and especially in order to be resilient in periods of adversity. This is why the Institute has adapted Generation Global for students to access outside the classroom. This shift will enable young people to independently learn core skills dialogue, such as global communication and critical thinking, and practice them with their global peers. This is designed to provide safe spaces for young people to interact on issues they care about when they are outside their normal peer learning environments.
Coming out of many weeks of lockdown and facing complicated decisions about easing restrictions, weighing up when and how to open schools is not an easy call for policy makers to make. What is needed is a balanced approach to the risks and recognition that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Different countries and regions within countries will take different paths depending on their localised conditions. What must be universal, however, is a clear political strategy and messaging so that reforms future-proof systems to keep young people learning during any closures and can empower schools to make changes that deliver the best learning outcomes to prepare students for whatever the future holds. Only 25% of respondents to the OECD survey reported that parents were consulted – and no mention of young people themselves. Without clear political leadership and communication, teachers, parents and students won’t be able to buy into the strategies that ultimately rely on their support and behavioural change to be successful.