Closures of schools during the pandemic – with those in some regions closed for up two years – have exacerbated a poverty in learning, mental health, as well as young people losing out on school meals.
“Learning poverty in the years before the pandemic was flat, but we see now that there is an increase by 2022,” Jaime Saavedra, global director for education at the World Bank, told an audience of ministers, government representatives and other education stakeholders.
“It should be zero by 2030. We need to accelerate a downward trend that we are not seeing today.”
Before the pandemic, World Bank calculated that in low- and middle-income countries by age 10, 53% of children didn’t have basic reading skills to understand a simple story. This could now have risen to 70%, Saavedra warned.
“Schools should have been the last to close”
“Imagine if remote learning would have worked beautifully… maybe kids could go to school once a week. But that is not the conclusion,” he added.
It’s a manmade crisis, Saavedra continued. The decision to close schools was a policy mistake, he said, adding that as time passed it was clear that the benefit of school closures was “small”.
“Schools should have been the last to close,” HE Hamad bin Mohamed Al Sheikh, minister of education from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, agreed.
“Lot’s of countries did that. It should have been specific to schools [and classrooms] if there are cases,” he stated, noting that the nation had not been an “exception to disruption”.
“There has been no other group that has been impact by public policy [as children],” Andreas Schleicher director of education and skills at the OECD said of school closures.
The pandemic however is also seen by the Kingdom as an opportunity to implement education reform, he added. The key to success is ensuring youth are prepared for jobs of the future, Al Sheikh said.
“Some of the changes we have done would have taken more than 10 years, yet it was done in two years,” he said of remote learning and digitising education.
Peter Phillips, chief executive of Cambridge University Press and Assessment, highlighted the impact on mental health and the situation in Ukraine.
“We feel a constant sense of urgency [as a result of multiple crises],” he said. “We have an opportunity to strive for better… and we can put wellbeing at the heart of everything we do.
“Wellbeing is a foundation for everything we do,” he said, explaining that it continues to be an issue beyond the pandemic.
However, beyond the pandemic there are “big forces” shaping education that ministers and governments must take into account, Schleicher added.
The OECD’s Education Fast Forward: Building a future that works for all report highlights the long-term impact education can expect from issues such as digitalisation, labour market shifts, equality and access to education, and climate change.
“The biggest risk is that the short-term challenges, like a pandemic or wars, will obscure much larger kinds of challenges,” Schleider said.
“This pandemic has been totally overblown and it’s kind of because it was handled badly by education. These industrial systems didn’t respond well to this, we locked down schools, we’re paying for the consequences,” he noted.
“That reaction to the pandemic has huge costs and obscured our look at those bigger challenges. Clearly, you know, climate change is going to disrupt your life a lot more than the pandemic… we always prioritise the urgent over the important.”
Educators and governments need to be better at thinking in terms of “alternative futures”, he continued.
“We run behind the pandemic, we do not look at what digitalisation, automation, artificial intelligence is going to do to us. Have a look how climate change is going to change it. Have a look at how demography is impacting on it,” he urged.
“Most countries are not on track to reach SDG4 by 2030,” Amel Karboul, CEO of Education Outcomes Fund, said. “Let’s not kid ourselves it’s also wealthy countries.
“We have to cut the waste and we have to spend better”
“We need to spend money. We have to cut the waste and we have to spend better,” she told ministers.
Speaking with The PIE, director of the Global Education Monitoring at UNESCO Manos Antoninis explained that an initiative aiming to engage countries on SDG4 targets is currently being worked on. For many the targets set in 2015 were too high to begin with.
“For example, you [could] tell Niger they will not achieve [the target] in secondary provision, of course they won’t, because the 20% is not really possible. But that doesn’t mean that all countries should not try.”
Nations are setting intermediate benchmarks for 2025. A report earlier this year found that two in three countries have directly or indirectly taken part in setting national SDG 4 benchmarks to do as well as they can.
All regions will meet or be very close to achieving universal primary education, the document found, however challenges will remain in sub‐Saharan Africa where 8% of children of primary school age are still predicted to be out of school in 2030.
“It’s something similar to what people have done with climate change,” Antoninis explained. “You have a 1.5 degree goal, but every country is making its own nationally determined contributions of what they will achieve, and what will be their contribution to achieve this,” he said.
“We are now in the process of trying to get the remaining one third of countries to commit.”
The United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, covering SDG4 this year, and the Transforming Education Summit, featuring heads of states, both hope to drive momentum on the education development goal forward.
“We will no longer say if the country will receive 100% or not, which is unfair, but whether countries are progressing at the pace that sets them apart from what they were doing before. That’s much more appropriate,” Antoninis added.
“We are trying to bring the debate back to something that can engage countries… we’re trying to change the terms of the dialogue.”