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How to stop COVID-19 leaving millions of children behind in education

Monday, 11 May 2020 13:07 GMT

Tolu Alagba, 13, kneels to copy notes from a blackboard in a makeshift classroom arranged for children in Sagbo Kodji community, on an island, during a lockdown imposed by the authorities to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Lagos, Nigeria April 25, 2020. Picture taken April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We have to ensure that a temporary disruption of schooling does not become a permanent loss of education

Kevin Watkins is CEO of Save the Children UK; Hassan Jameel is president, Saudi Arabia, of Community Jameel

As governments in the world’s poorest countries respond to the coronavirus pandemic, they are rightly focussing on the immediate need to save lives. But Covid-19 is rapidly mutating into a destructive force that threatens not just the health of adults, but the education of a generation of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. We have the antidote to that threat – but administering it will take a step-change in international cooperation.

Education has undeniably suffered because of Covid-19. School closures around the world have left more than 1.5 billion children out of school. Keeping these children safe and providing them with opportunities for learning during lockdown is an immediate priority. Looking ahead, we have to ensure that a temporary disruption of schooling does not become a permanent loss of education.

Equity is at the heart of these challenges. Just as this crisis has revealed inequalities in public health, it is now putting pressure on the inequalities in education.  Old disparities linked to wealth, gender, ethnicity and disability are emerging as fault lines in the education response.

For children fortunate enough to have a good home-schooling environment, the pandemic will be a brief, albeit disruptive, interlude. Sadly, there are millions around the world facing a very different environment marked by poverty, insecurity, deeply ingrained gender disadvantage and, in some cases, violence. The danger now is that these children will be left behind, with school closure acting as the catalyst for increased inequality in education.

For children who are refugees, school closures threaten to remove one of the few escape routes out of poverty. Even before the pandemic, almost half of refugee children - over 3.7 million in total - were out of school. Those numbers could now rise dramatically. Syrian and Rohingya children forced from their homes by war now face the prospect of losing the education they need to build a better future. The same is true in areas of conflict like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is an alternative. We can prevent temporary school closures leading to a permanent exit from education for millions. Furthermore, the pandemic provides an opportunity to build back better, more resilient and more equitable education systems. That opportunity will be lost unless the international community stops treating Covid-19 as a narrowly defined ‘health problem’ and starts prioritising education. 

Even before Covid-19, progress in improving school numbers had stalled, especially in countries affected by conflict. The effectiveness of education in many countries is abysmal, reflecting a lack of investment in teacher training, support and recruitment, reinforced in many cases by inappropriate curricula and weak learning assessment.

Building back better is about addressing these problems while tackling the immediate crisis.

Five priorities stand out.

First, we must act now to support learning during school closures. Digital delivery has a role to play, but for children in the poorest communities, radio instruction is the most immediate option. In northern Uganda, Save the Children has designed an interactive radio instruction programme aimed at supporting education for South Sudanese refugee children. The curriculum is designed to involve parents and the wider community, encourage play-based learning, and provide emotional support. Teachers and parents need to be given the right support to keep their children connected to learning. 

Second, it is time for the international community to stand up for the education of refugees. These children and their parents consistently identify education as a top priority, yet it attracts less than 3 per cent of humanitarian funding. Save the Children and Community Jameel are addressing this issue through our  Transforming Refugee Education towards Excellence (TREE) initiative, a teacher-training programme that focuses on the social and emotional wellbeing of teachers as well as the quality of teaching practices. TREE’s curriculum is currently being adapted to promote the adoption of blended learning, which combines face-to-face and online learning.  Our aim is to help teachers  manage stress and trauma and to deliver education activities that are more effective, with a strengthened emphasis on students wellbeing.  TREE is just one model. We  encourage donors  to play their part in tackling this challenge through their own initiatives and helping meet the funding gaps.

Third, child poverty is a major barrier to education – and the barrier must be removed. The evidence shows that safety-nets supported by cash transfers and nutritional aid can keep children in school, and out of labour markets, early marriage and destitution. Governments within developing countries could do more, but  it will be critical for the World Bank to prioritise spending in this area.

Fourth, as pressure on education budgets mounts, governments should attach more weight to equity. All too often education spending is skewed towards wealthier areas. That model should be turned on its head, with those in greatest need of support securing a greater share of investment.

Finally, we need to start working towards safe school openings and a Back to School campaign ready for whenever schools open. Governments should be actively promoting re-enrolment, especially among girls, but campaigning must be backed by practical measures. Education ministries should be preparing now to conduct learning assessments and developing remedial support programmes to support catch-up.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything it is surely that delayed action is a route to avoidable human suffering, devastating pressure on health systems, and economic disaster. Delayed action in education will produce similar results. Let’s not repeat the mistake.