Persistent education disparities underscore new urgency to achieve SDG 4 in Asia-Pacific

A new state-of-education report conducted by UNESCO and UNICEF in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic analyzes achievements, current setbacks and what it will take to ‘build back better’.

January 19, 2022 by Margarete Sachs-Israel, UNESCO Bangkok, Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Jim Ackers, UNICEF South Asia, and Francisco Benavides, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific
3 minutes read
Students sharing a book and working together in their classroom at Azimpur Government Primary School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. September 2019. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Students sharing a book and working together in their classroom at Azimpur Government Primary School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. September 2019.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how years of progress toward achieving quality education in the Asia-Pacific region can be reversed in a matter of months.

The global crisis due to the pandemic has also brought long-standing, underlying disparities to the surface, revealing how the most disadvantaged learners continue to be left behind.

The 5-Year Progress Review of SDG 4 – Education 2030 in Asia-Pacific released in September 2021 by co-producers UNESCO and UNICEF, examines country achievements to date and the persistent barriers that are causing others to lag behind.

The review seeks to understand what lessons have been learned and what opportunities have emerged, providing a blueprint for future progress.

Significant progress has been made in the last 5 years

This is particularly the case at the primary level, where completion rates were currently above 90% in 10 out of 17 countries surveyed (Fig. 1).

Figure 1

Access to quality pre-primary education had also improved, with overall enrollment trending upwards in recent years. In East Asia, enrollment increased by 9 percentage points between 2015 and 2019. This positive news is tempered, however, by the fact that – at the other end of the spectrum – completion rates of secondary education remain low.

In terms of recent achievement, despite, or in response to COVID, rapid advances in remote learning, including the application of technology to learning have encouraged more partnerships within and outside the education sector, leading to innovative approaches around both content development and delivery.

Most countries surveyed were not on track

The joint UNESCO–UNICEF report clearly indicates that we faced a learning crisis in the Asia-Pacific region, which started well before the pandemic and has been alarmingly exacerbated during the pandemic. 27 million children and adolescents in the region remain illiterate, 95% of whom are in South Asia.

In many of countries in the region, 50% of children were unable to read and understand a simple sentence by age 10, despite completing their early grades.

Teachers have faced huge obstacles. Many have struggled to develop the digital skills required to adapt swiftly to new modes of teaching and learning necessitated by the pandemic.

Although schools in high-income countries tend to be well equipped, many more still lack even the most basic infrastructure. In Afghanistan, for instance, only 5% of primary schools have access to adequate hand-washing facilities; in India, only 65% of primary schools have electricity; and in Samoa, only 15% of primary and lower secondary schools have access to computers and digital connectivity.

Inequity continues to be a challenge

Alarming gaps remain between rich and poor, urban and rural, girls and boys, including marginalized groups, such as ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, those with disabilities, and displaced peoples. There are also important ‘intersectional’ factors at play: a given learner may belong to more than one of these disadvantaged groups (e.g. a disabled minority girl residing in a rural area).

These disparities persist even within the most developed countries. The report finds that three main barriers prevent disadvantaged groups from accessing quality education: (1) discrimination against difference and diversity; (2) inadequate policies, legislation and strategies to mitigate exclusion; and (3) inequitable budget allocation.

Years of progress can be reversed within months

The extended and varied impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly exacerbated these disparities and halted progress toward realizing SDG 4 by 2030. School closures have resulted in significant learning losses for nearly all students in the region, with a disproportionate impact on students from low-income households.

The pandemic has also deepened the already existing ‘digital divide’, as learners and teachers in rural and remote areas are at a significant disadvantage in comparison with their urban peers in accessing distance modes of learning, teaching and career training.

What can countries do to overcome these challenges?

Given this situation, countries should take urgent action in addressing these challenges. They can:

  • Renew their commitment to focusing on equity and inclusion to allow for more flexible and resilient education systems;
  • Reinforce the capacities of teachers to ensure they are equipped with the necessary skills and competencies;
  • Those who are most excluded from education are more effectively represented in government policies, education budgets and learner data monitoring efforts;
  • Enhance the equitable supply of infrastructure, physical and digital resources; and
  • Increase investments in education and ensure efficient and equitable resource allocation, as well as public accountability in expenditures, through a ‘progressive universalism’ approach.

All education stakeholders must ultimately work in close partnership: parents, teachers, youth, education officials, policy-makers, academics, media and the private sector.

We each have a responsibility to ensure that no learner, regardless of background, is left wanting in regard to one of the fundamental rights of all humanity.

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