By Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO
Humanity likes clear cut resolutions to crises and flees uncertainty. As the new year begins, the world has neither – the pandemic is resurging, vaccination campaigns are still in their infancy, and the future has never been more uncertain – especially for the world’s 1.6 billion students and their teachers.
For months their schools and universities were shut down, leading to a massive pivot to remote learning on which close to 500 million students missed out altogether. Now, governments are juggling with restrictive measures to contain the virus. As a result, around 800 million students are still facing major interruptions to their schooling, ranging from across-the-board school closures in 31 countries to reduced or part-time academic schedules in many others. Two-thirds of an academic year has been lost on average worldwide due to COVID-19 full or partial closures.
The UN Secretary-General warned of a generational catastrophe six months ago – we could well be heading towards it. We’re no longer in an emergency but in a “protracted crisis’ that is increasingly devastating – not only educationally, but socially, economically and mentally. Stories of increasing child labour, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence and malnutrition. Accounts of university students suffering from extreme social isolation, desperate poverty and dimmed prospects. The pandemic has exposed how much schools, teachers and educators matter for society. They were not ready to withstand this shock and need support to heal and build back better.
It’s time to roll out a serious educational recovery package. Lost learning is no longer being counted in days and weeks, but in months. The most vulnerable have been hardest hit. The pandemic widened inequalities, amplifying a pre-existing learning crisis. At least 24 million children and youth are expected not to return to school because of the economic impact of the crisis alone. Without making education a pillar of recovery plans alongside health, jobs and climate, societies will fuel rather than reverse rising inequality, poverty and social divides. Setting the world on a more resilient, green and inclusive course will not happen without investing in those who are the custodians of our future.
A recovery package for education centers on inclusion, resilience and transformation. This is about leaving no one behind, bracing for future shocks and gearing teaching and learning to the global challenges of our times.
The first imperative is to reopen schools safely and inclusively, taking every measure to protect the health and well-being of learners, teachers and educators. For this, the world’s 100 million teachers and educators must be considered a priority group in vaccination campaigns. They are frontline workers and the most important actors in the educational recovery. Nor can we let economic constraints and gender norms stand in the way of returning to school. Every school has to prioritize the most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners hardest hit by closures: first by tracking those who are at risk of not returning to school and providing conditional cash transfers to the poorest families; second by ensuring that schools offer catch up and remedial learning programmes; third by boosting school health and nutrition. All these provide strong incentives. This recovery must advance social inclusion and gender equality through education.
The second is to build resilience to future shocks, from health to environmental. This is not only about technology but empowering its users, recognizing the primacy of the human dimension. Governments, public and private partners must step up action to narrow the digital divide, extend connectivity and electrification, develop quality digital learning contents and support teachers to master remote and hybrid teaching. Resilient education systems rely on teachers who are trusted, trained, respected and empowered. The crisis catalyzed innovations and partnerships that the recovery can build upon to create more flexible, collaborative and personalized learning systems.
The third imperative to provide learners with the skills to create a more sustainable, just and peaceful future. Our education systems need to be reoriented around the stakes of the green and digital economy, of the caring economy, the creative economy. They need to give learners the knowledge and mindsets to respond to climate change, the existential threat of our century. They need to build resilience to disinformation that has spiraled during this pandemic. They need to connect learning with real life issues, to foster awareness and responsibility towards our single planet.
The pandemic has laid bare and deepened inequalities in education. The greatest danger lies in not recognizing the power of education to build back more inclusive, resilient and innovative societies. It’s not enough to protect education financing; it is suicidal to cut it back. Like our economies, education needs stimulus. And yet, education has been close to invisible in in fiscal responses, with an estimated 0.78% worldwide allocated to the sector. Reaching the most marginalized is also not being prioritized, with only one in five countries running equitable finance mechanisms. This is short sighted: investing in education now will save funds later down the line: immediate investment in remedial and catch-up programmes can reduce the costs of repairing the damage from COVID-19 by up to 75%. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden are among countries in Europe that have provided specific packages to support continuity of learning and skills development. In the United States, the Care Act foresees US$31 billion in emergency education funding to students, schools, institutions, and states across the country.
The year ahead is a make or break one to get education up and running. Governments and the international community can coalesce around missions to reopen schools safely; train teachers; boost skills development and expand digital connectivity. They agreed on these priorities at the Global Education Meeting in 2020. Now is the time for concrete action. The G7 and G20 have put education and skills on their agendas – this must translate into financial commitment. The Global Partnership for Education is aiming at a replenishment of US$5 billion plus to support learning in 67 low and lower-middle income countries. This is not big money. Middle-income countries on the verge of economic implosion require funding facilities to shore up their education and training systems. A sluggish growth forecast in high-income countries call for expanded programmes to reskill youth and advancing digital inclusion.
Education makes our societies stronger, more prosperous and resilient. Investment in education is the best response to the uncertainty that will grip our world for many months and perhaps years to come. To do justice to the COVID-19 generation, governments and the international community have only one choice: invest in their future now.