Schooling and Covid: A new UN report tracks adaptations in education in 142 countries

“We are pulling out all the stops but 20 children are reluctant to come back to school,” Nesrin, a teacher of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, told us about the Covid-19 induced school closures. Already disadvantaged before the pandemic, these students feel left out and do not want to return out of fear they will be unable catch up.

We’re only just starting to get a clearer picture of the extent of the disruption this pandemic has caused to education. With the support of the Global Partnership for Education, we recently worked with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) Institute of Statistics, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Global Education Monitoring Report. We ran a survey with 142 countries to hear how they have adapted to the new normality. No one foresaw the pandemic. It has been a global experiment in education adaptation, which we are keen to document, and support to the greatest extent possible.

Who could possibly have predicted that, when Covid-19 first went global, schools around the world would end up closed across all four education levels for an average of around four months, or 79 instruction days? The poorest countries, as always, were worst affected, seeing school closures rise to 115 days on average, compared to 53 days in some high-income countries.

TV, radio and phone

As the pandemic continued its course, education systems tried to cope. Ministries in low-income countries told us that a remarkable number of them — 92% — used a combination of broadcast media such as radio to keep learning going. In Mozambique, for example, thousands of students without computers received their lessons from their teachers on TV. In Kenya, teachers sent students learning guides on their phones, while in rural Sierra Leone, teenagers tuned into solar-powered radios to learn.

But, just as with all technological inputs in education, they were never going to be a substitute for face-to-face teaching. The survey found that a third of low- and lower-middle-income countries that provided lessons through TV or radio reported that less than half of primary school students were actually reached.

There is no other conclusion than that school closures have rolled back years of progress for the most disadvantaged students. Unesco’s Covid-19 Global Education Coalition reported that teenage pregnancy across sub-Saharan Africa could increase by as much as 65% as a result of Covid-19. Besides adolescent girls, many of the poorest students are at risk of not returning to school as poverty forced them to work.

Remediation

Since the Global North’s spring, the narrative has shifted from remote learning to remediation – or catch-up tools. Schools and teachers have been left to address the aftermath of the crisis: how to mitigate learning loss and help those who did not learn during school closures to catch up?

Remediation in education is not new. Many initiatives have been implemented throughout the years in the aftermath of wars or extreme poverty with great success to help the most marginalised children catch up. Studies on the impact of remediation efforts have been very encouraging. Even short-term remediation programmes when children return to school could reduce long-term learning losses by half.

Countries have taken very different approaches to mitigate the learning loss. Some are extending school hours or even the academic year, as in the Philippines. Others are simplifying the curriculum, so students can focus on core subjects and learn them well. In Bangladesh, an abridged syllabus was announced focusing on key subjects such as math, Bengali, English and science in secondary schools. Some focused on tutoring, such as in Italy, where one-to-one support was offered to the most disadvantaged students with very promising results.

However, on the sidelines of these positive innovations is the finding that one third of countries have reported not organising any remediation to help children catch up. The lack of any type of remedial action has serious consequences for students and education systems. For the most marginalised students, it means that they are at higher risk of dropping out from school. Unesco has warned that 24-million children and youth are at risk of dropping out and that more than 100-million children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading due to the impact of school closures. We can’t let this happen.

Cost calculation

For governments, there is a very high financial cost associated with inaction. Covid-19 has pushed costs of education up by up to $45-billion due to the need to re-enrol students and to offer remedial programmes. However, it is far cheaper to invest now than to roll out second chance programmes later when the learning gap is even greater.

Even with remediation programmes that attract children back to school, the reality is that the most vulnerable may never return. Social protection such as conditional cash transfers and child grants with an education component and gender dimension are particularly important to re-enrol these learners. 

According to the survey, only one in four countries is providing incentives such as cash, food, transport or fee waivers to help the children from the most disadvantaged families, including girls, return to school. Reviewing or revising access policies especially for girls is uncommon – this is a cause for concern as adolescent girls are at highest risk of not returning to school in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Low-income countries are lagging in the implementation of even the most basic measures to ensure a safe return to school: for instance, less than 10% reported having sufficient soap, clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and masks to assure the safety of all learners and staff, compared to 96% of high-income countries.

It has been an unprecedented year.  Investing in students through safe return actions and remediation programmes will be critical in mitigating the most adverse effects of the pandemic on our children and young people. They should not pay the price for this pandemic with their future. We stand by to support countries as they work out how to emerge from this upheaval with the least damage.

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Stefania Giannini
Stefania Giannini is assistant director general for education at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco)

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