Pandemic-related school closures were unprecedented – but they are not the biggest threat to children’s learning

While governments worldwide are continuing to struggle to implement forms of remote learning with equal access for all, the education crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic is still being exacerbated globally. However, a recent landmark White Paper jointly issued by the world’s largest education organizations recall that this learning crisis isn’t really a new one.

November 02, 2020 by Myra Murad Khan, The World Bank, Kirsty Newman, Asian Development Bank, and Thelma Obiakor, Center for the Studies of the Economies of Africa
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4 minutes read
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A class 3 student from the Asfia Badr Basic School for Girls in Sudan. Credit GPEKelley Lynch
A class 3 student from the Asfia Badr Basic School for Girls in Sudan.
Credit: GPE/ Kelley Lynch

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to education systems worldwide. At the peak of the pandemic, approximately 1.5 billion learners globally were affected, with schools in many countries closed for months at a time to contain the spread of the virus.

Families, communities and school leaders across the world also suffered, trying to ensure that gaps in learning were minimized. Governments worldwide are continuing to struggle to implement forms of remote learning with equal access for all. The education crisis is being exacerbated globally.

However, a recent landmark White Paper jointly issued by the world’s largest education organizations highlights an important message: the learning crisis was always there.

The learning crisis

Before the pandemic, the World Bank’s Learning Poverty data estimates that 53 percent of students in low and middle-income countries lived in ‘learning poverty’ – defined as the number of 10 year olds in a country unable to read or understand a simple story in their language.

Recent projections by teams at UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics (UIS) and the World Bank’s Learning Poverty team have estimated that this number will rise due to the pandemic – by approximately 10 percent more.

Source: Education Commission, 2020.
Source: Education Commission, 2020. Out of the 53% of children in Learning Poverty, 44% are in-school children, who fail to meet minimum proficiency, and 9% are out-of-school children. The World Bank team estimates an additional 10% of children will enter learning poverty in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic closures. The team’s estimates are from their ‘pessimistic’ simulation projection.

The majority of these new additions to the population of learning poor are in fact from countries with relatively higher performing education systems. This is not because the education systems in these will suffer more from the impacts of the pandemic, but rather because the levels of learning are already so low in many low- and lower-middle income countries, that there is just less scope to reduce.

In the lowest-income countries, 90 percent of 10 years olds were already learning poorly.

The potential shock to funding for education

None of this means that the COVID-19 pandemic will not have a huge impact on the learning crisis – it undoubtedly will. The children who were already below the line of being able to read are likely to sink even deeper into learning deficits.

In addition, children in these contexts may suffer the most from the other impacts of school closures. For example, nutrition may be affected due to the loss of subsidized or free school meals, and other services children can access through school facilities.

However, the greatest long-term impacts on learning will likely be due to the ensuing financial crisis rather than directly as a result of school closures. The White Paper paints a bleak picture of rising costs for education systems, at a time when both domestic finance for education and international aid are at high risk of being cut.

The paper sets out the urgent need to close the financing gap for education globally, and to target funding to the most cost-effective approaches to deal with the fundamental systemic issues that caused the learning crisis to begin with.

Keeping focused on foundational learning

With the urgency surrounding rectifying the learning losses caused by the pandemic, there is also a risk that a focus will be on technology-enabled learning and children who are newly ‘learning poor’.

However, there is a risk that this will divert attention from the pre-pandemic learning crisis that already existed due to fundamental structural issues. There are no silver bullet solutions offered in this paper, and indeed there is a stark warning against the potential harm that unrealistic and unviable approaches to education technology can cause.

Instead, the paper strongly advocates for a focus on foundational learning driven by a renewed focus on the education workforce and on proven interventions such as differentiated instruction.

With this in mind, it is essential that policies and reforms not be reactionary and shortsighted. The unintended consequences of diverting attention away from the fundamental learning crisis will further widen the gaps of learning levels.

As political leaders grapple with ever more difficult trade-offs of solving the learning crisis, the hope is that they will heed this advice.

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