It has become commonplace to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the inequalities that pre-existed in education systems and has opened new rifts. We also know that education may be increasingly capturing the media headlines but not finance ministers’ attention. No matter the level of financing that countries have, however, as new GEM Report analysis discusses, the importance of actively pursuing equity objectives to help reach those furthest behind is key. Yet, relatively little is known about education ministries’ responses to help disadvantaged learners. Much of the evidence is coming from richer countries.
Targeted financing is particularly critical to respond to the increased marginalization as a result of COVID-19, of course, which many countries have been quick to realize. When closed, schools require adequate resources to reach children through remote learning and to maintain and expand student support programmes. As schools reopen, allocations to schools can help prevent financial costs from being passed on to families or students. Allocating grants directly to schools is an effective use of funds for reducing the chances that children will drop out. This tactic was used by the government in Sierra Leone, which waived school fees as part of its response to the Ebola outbreak to encourage children to return to school.
Some countries have relied upon their overall funding mechanisms to support children during the pandemic. In the United States, the CARES Act behind the first stimulus package prioritized sending additional funds per child to states with higher poverty rates. States are then responsible for equitably redistributing funds to school districts in need, although the formulas for determining those most in need were strongly debated. While initial funding was tied to schools re-opening, that condition was dropped in the second US$900 billion stimulus package, passed at the end of 2020. But states have US$4 billion at their discretion for education, less than before, and US$2.5 billion of that amount must go to private schools, albeit those serving low-income students.
Many countries have targeted schools with funding responses specific to COVID-19. In the UK, exceptional costs can be claimed by schools, including for pupils who have not returned to school. A digital education grant was made available for local authorities running public schools, boards of state-aided private schools, and individual schools to acquire materials and internet access for disadvantaged children. A GBP1 billion package is being allocated to schools in 2020/21, two-thirds of which are a ‘catch-up premium’. However, no equity component was attached to this flat payment, which corresponds to GBP80 per student. Equity orientation was reserved for the remaining one-third of the package, the national tutoring programme, which is targeted to the most marginalised. However, delays were observed in its delivery and in the delivery of a free school meal for poor families.
A more common approach, including in middle-income countries, has been the adjustment of social programmes. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, a conditional cash transfer targets at-risk households with children under the age of 18 in three deprived provinces. The cash transfer complements existing schemes, including in-kind support aimed at increasing access to and continuation of learning. South Africa has topped up its Child Support Grant. Spain protected support received by families during the school year, ensuring that it continued during school closures.
Low- and lower-middle-income countries have received aid for their emergency responses. By the end of October 2020, the Global Partnership for Education had approved US$467 million worth of grants, of which 38% supported equity initiatives defined as ‘activities on hygiene and psychosocial support programs, with priority support for the most vulnerable children, including children with disabilities’. About 76% of the grants supported no- or low-tech solutions for distance learning. For instance, Sudan purchased 287,000 radios with solar-powered chargers, printed homework assignments in newspapers, and bought mobile phone data for teachers to communicate with students. Papua New Guinea targeted learning kits to individual student needs, including providing Braille and large print materials to visually impaired students.
On the occasion of the International Day of Education, UNESCO has estimated that two-thirds of an academic year has been lost on average worldwide due to COVID-19 full or partial closures. And we know that the most vulnerable have been hardest hit. There is no one fiscal solution to closing inequalities in education, as the almost 80 country profiles we have compiled on our PEER website on equitable finance show. But there must be no doubt about one thing: more and better, equitable funding is critical to prevent the sector from sliding backwards in the long term.