Why the world must urgently strengthen learning and protect finance for education

16/10/2020

A “generational catastrophe”. That is what UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the unprecedented education crisis looming over millions of learners across the planet, in his UNESCO-led Policy Brief launched alongside the #SaveOurFuture campaign in August. The COVID-19 pandemic has created the most severe disruption to global education systems in history, forcing more than 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries out of school at the peak of the crisis. It threatens the future of a generation with 24 million children and youth at risk of dropping out.

This pandemic has brought to light already-existing challenges to education that have not adequately addressed for far too long. It has highlighted alarming inequalities within and across countries that must be tackled urgently in order to guarantee everyone’s fundamental right to quality education.

From financing education to reopening schools safely, the world must immediately set priority actions for the recovery and strengthening of education systems around five themes considered key to the COVID-19 response. 

Protect domestic and international financing of education

Globally, the share of education in public budgets has remained constant at about 14.5% for the past two decades. With the economic impact of COVID-19, government capacity to raise revenues will be seriously tested, while education is expected to continue to face stiff competition from other sectors. The financial downturn will put increasing pressure on national education budgets and aid to education at a time when higher funding is required for the recovery.

According UNESCO’s estimates based on data from the IMF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), even if the budget share allocated to education remains stable, public spending could drop by 8% (US$210 billion) and aid to education could fall by 12% (US$337 billion).

The 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report estimated that annual spending on education was at US$4.7 trillion worldwide: Governments account for 79.3% of total spending, households for 20.4% and donors for 0.3% globally (12% in low-income countries).

Reopen schools safely

Countries across the globe are gradually reopening or planning for the reopening of schools after several months of closure to curb the spread of the virus. Protecting the physical and mental health of students, teachers and school personnel and preparing for a potential viral resurgence remain the top concerns. Additional challenges to be addressed include the consequences of prolonged social isolation, both on the education system and on the school community.

School closures have brought a major disruption in children’s lives, affecting their socio-emotional development and well-being, as well as their social life and relationships at school. One critical condition to reopening is to ensure a safe return to physical premises, implementing infection control measures such as physical distancing and respiratory and hand hygiene measures in school premises and transport.

The immediate preoccupations to address when reopening schools include learning loss, how to assess it and offer remedial action. Everything must be done to counter the exacerbation of existing learning gaps and inequalities, the emergence of new ones, and the risk of increased  dropout. Managing the back-to-school transition will require remedial action and possible adjustments, including changes to the school calendar, learning objectives, delivery modalities, assessment and certification practices. The joint Framework for reopening schools by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and World Food Programme (WFP) serves as an important reference on this topic.

Focus on inclusion, equity and gender equality

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and deepened education inequalities, marginalization and exclusion. At least 463 million or nearly one-third of students around the globe remain cut off from education, mainly due to a lack of remote learning policies or lack of equipment needed for learning at home. Social and digital divides based on gender, ability, location, language, wealth and other characteristics have put the most disadvantaged at risk of learning loss and dropout.

Public health outbreaks usually have distinct gendered impacts. Evidence from past crises shows that girls can be particularly vulnerable in the face of prolonged school closures, particularly in low- and low-middle-income countries. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Quarantines have placed many girls at heightened exposure to gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation and early and unintended pregnancies, while also removing access to vital services for protection, nutrition, health and well-being. UNESCO and partners recently launched a campaign to ensure that every girl is able to learn while schools are closed and return to the classroom when schools safely reopen.

Ensuring continuity of learning and safe return to school for all students is needed to protect advances in education made over the last two decades, where the number of out-of-school children has decreased by nearly 125 million. This includes important gains made in girls’ education in recent decades.

Reimagine teaching and learning

The pandemic directly affected 63 million primary and secondary teachers. Almost overnight, schools closed and teachers were required to conduct distance teaching. With no time to prepare and often with limited guidance and resources, teachers had to modify curricula and adapt lesson plans to carry on with instruction using high, low and no-tech solutions. They lectured live, posted lessons online or interacted with students using mobile devices. In countries with poor or no connectivity, teachers used radio and TV, prepared take-home packages, while others visited homes to pick up and drop off students’ work. Teachers have been key to ensuring that learning and communication with students and their families continued while schools were closed. Their role during reopening is just as important.

Teachers require training and support on adjusting curricula and assessment methods to measure and mitigate learning losses and prevent vulnerable students from dropping out. They need continued training on remote teaching, available technologies and alternative flexible pedagogies for online, blended and offline learning during future school closures. Teachers also require training on health and safety protocols to ensure a safe return to school and finally they require psycho-social support to deal with stress and to learn how to support students and other teachers in turn. Teaching quality remains a challenge globally, especially in low-income countries, yielding a workforce that lacks the skills and confidence to effectively transfer teaching online.

The impact of this crisis on learning and the conditions of learning has been huge. Restrictions on movement, social isolation and the sudden change of traditional learning methods have led to increased pressure, stress and anxiety for young people, their families and communities. That is why education priorities must be reorganized so that learning systems address everyone’s needs to build a ‘new and better normal’ .

UNESCO, with its Futures of Education initiative, is currently leading a global debate to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet in a world of increasing uncertainty

Harnessing equitable connectivity and technologies for learning

The impact of COVID-19 on learning continuity has been devastating. Due to global school closures, formal learning either stopped completely or was severely disrupted for the vast majority of the world’s students. Unfortunately, learning disruptions due to the pandemic remain far from being resolved for most learners. Approximately half of the world’s population (some 3.6 billion people) still lack an internet connection.

Most students do not have the appropriate hardware, software, connectivity and digital skills required to find and use educational content dependent on technology. According to UN estimates, nearly 500 million students from pre-primary to upper-secondary school did not have any access to any remote learning—three quarters of those lived in the poorest households or rural areas.

Eight months into the crisis, UNESCO estimates that close to 600 million children, youth and adults) are affected by school closures in 34 countries, while in many others, they face reduced or part-time academic schedules.

In March 2020, UNESCO launched the Global Education Coalition, a multi-sector partnership - centered around connectivity, gender and teachers - to meet the urgent need worldwide for continuity of learning on an unprecedented scale.

UNESCO, together with the Governments of Ghana, Norway and the United Kingdom, is convening a virtual Global Education Meeting on 20 and 22 October to secure commitments from leaders for protection of education financing through the COVID-19 recovery, and agree on priority actions for the next year. Link to the live event page.