Eighty five per cent of children around the world in more than 150 countries are affected by school closures due to COVID-19. Many are currently receiving no education. And internationally, the fear is that some, not least girls, will never return to school. While the public health concerns of COVID-19 should, no doubt, be tackled now, policy makers could also act swiftly to avoid the education crisis turning into an education disaster.
No one knows how the virus will wreak havoc in coming months. Will there be a second peak in Europe or China? Will Africa escape the worst of the pandemic? Will the virus be contained in Latin America or South Asia, where it is currently not quite at its peak? The final consequences are fundamentally uncertain.
Policy makers could also act swiftly to avoid the education crisis turning into an education disaster
But this should not stop us acting now. Some potential actions are ‘no-regret’ policies - no one will regret them later and they are a good use of resources now - however the pandemic evolves. Elsewhere, I have expanded on no-regret policies in the areas of public health, social protection, the economy and the manufacturing and distribution of a vaccine when it becomes available. Here, I want to focus on no-regret policies for education, specifically for lower and middle income countries - though they have global relevance.
This blog argues for three areas of no-regret policies:
- First, ensuring learning continues to happen in whatever form is possible;
- Second, that special actions are prepared for remedial action and reversing dropout later; and
- Third, learning the lessons from digital education, in order to move towards a more inclusive and effective digital learning system later, even in resource-constrained countries.
COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time for children. It is generally acknowledged that there is a serious learning crisis in the developing world. While enrolment has increased to historically unprecedented rates, too few children are learning. For example, a recent World Bank report highlighted that three out of four children in grade 3 in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda cannot read a sentence such as, ‘the name of the dog is puppy’. In India, by grade 3, three-quarters of children cannot solve 46 minus 17, and by grade 5, it is still a problem for half of them.
Abhijeet Singh, an Oxford DPhil, now at Stockholm School of Economics, has shown that pupils typically start at similar levels, but then some fall behind, never to catch up, in the kind of school systems we find across these countries. And now, children who were especially at risk of falling behind, have lost their access to school because of COVID-19. Often, such children are from disadvantaged families – and now they have to learn at home, if at all.
Children who were especially at risk of falling behind, have lost their access to school because of COVID-19
The first no-regret policy should be to try to keep children learning now, as much as we can. Some are at risk of falling behind in the way Dr Singh has shown - and catching up never quite happens in the educational systems of the developing world. And the signs are not good. Work by the Centre for Global Development found that 95% of children, currently at home in Senegal, were not given any work by teachers, while 30% were not involved in anything educational. Supporting learning by any means available is essential – digitally, via radio or TV, via homework distributed to children’s houses, community workers identifying children vulnerable to lose out and more.
The second no-regret policy should be to prepare now to ensure children are identified and targeted for remedial education, or to reverse drop-out later. Children will be behind, but some will be more behind than others. This is the time to plan for better forms of remedial teaching, such as the type of programmes pioneered by Pratham in India, and in recent years across the world. Evidence of their potential at scale is strong as joint work, including with the RISE programme and others at Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford, have shown.
There is another reason why it is important to do this now. Much evidence exists to show that, during economic hardship, children will not just temporarily leave school, but do so permanently. And this is likely to happen now too. This affects, not least girls - with early marriage one of the consequences. It is the time to consider how such children, who may intend to drop out, can be reached. Maybe conditional cash transfers, targeted at adolescent girls, could be considered, whereby cash is offered to families conditional on children doing homework - which will continue after schools reopen, if children continue to attend.
Much evidence exists to show that, during economic hardship, children will not just temporarily leave school, but do so permanently. And this is likely to happen now too
The third no-regret policy concerns digital learning: this may well be its time. But, unless we start acting now, this will be the start of more learning inequalities rather than fewer in the future.
All over the world, the scale of digital teaching and learning has exploded, with countries and schools looking for ways to connect to pupils. Crucially, though, there are huge inequalities of access within countries - and between them. This was highlighted by a report we did at Blavatnik School of Government - as at least three billion people remain digitally unconnected.
No doubt, the appetite for digital learning will be increased by this crisis. And doing this as well as we can is a first step. But if we do not start attacking digital inequalities through inclusive access, and prepare now to roll out at scale across the world, educational inequalities will continue to expand ever more. Work on a Digital Roadmap and Digital Toolkits may help policy makers get ahead. But there is more. The way digital tools, such as Zoom, Teams, Skype and the like, have been used for education all over the world is only exploiting their communication opportunities.
Digital learning systems are very different. If used well, they allow low-cost individualised learning at the right level with feedback loops to suit each child, rather than exposure to the same for all children in a ‘Zoom’ class. This has substantial potential in low-resource environments. A recent report by a team I led at Oxford gives more ideas. The key now is to learn as much as we can from the digital experiences during the crisis, and then get educational systems ready to using digital tools in the future in an inclusive way.
The developing world faces a learning crisis...We do not have to wait until after the COVID-19 virus has passed to start tackling it. Nobody will regret acting now
The developing world faces a learning crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not have to wait until after the COVID-19 virus has passed to start tackling it. Nobody will regret acting now. And it will make responding later easier - and more affordable.
Professor Stefan Dercon
University of Oxford (Blavatnik School of Government and Economics Department)