Opinion: We cannot sleepwalk into a learning crisis

02 August 2021

Covid-19 has been an earthquake along the already fraught fault lines of global education. The result has been a deep chasm into which the most vulnerable have fallen: 1.6 billion children were out of education at the height of school closures.

Covid-19 has been an earthquake along the already fraught fault lines of global education. The result has been a deep chasm into which the most vulnerable have fallen: 1.6 billion children were out of education at the height of school closures.

 If we do not act now with new tactics and strategies, including changes to the way we deliver aid, the young face a tsunami of looming poverty that will wipe away their opportunities and future prosperity. If we do not act now, we should not expect their forgiveness.

Learning poverty

Even before the pandemic, although more students were in school, this did not translate into more learning. About 53 per cent of children suffer from learning poverty – either not in school or unable to read and understand a simple story by age 10. Now, the pandemic is projected to force an additional 10 per cent of students into learning poverty. Current estimates predict that the students currently in school could stand to lose $10 trillion in earnings due to the learning deficit.

At the same time, the economic fallout from the pandemic contracted global gross domestic product (GDP) by 3.3 per cent last year, which escalated poverty and slashed public spending on human capital. The knock-on effect is forcing more children, especially 20 million girls, out of school forever. Such disruptions and high levels of learning poverty are an alarming sign that the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal on education is under grave threat.

A window of opportunity

With its challenges for learning, the pandemic also offers a window of opportunity to prioritise investment in people by building resilient and equitable education systems that address learning poverty. Any investment must have a sharp focus on equity and cost-effectiveness, especially in poor and vulnerable settings.

The benefits are clear: investing in learning outcomes is central to building human capital which drives productivity, prosperity and progress. Every year of schooling raises a person’s earnings by 10 per cent and boosts a country’s GDP by 18 per cent. If all adults had just two more years of schooling, nearly 60 million people could escape poverty.

So, it is heartening to see that many countries undertook drastic measures to deploy remote learning solutions during the pandemic. Sadly, the virtual space further exposed the widening disparities between students with resources and those lacking them. It is no surprise a recent survey found that remote learning solutions were difficult to use for even half of the students. It underscores that we must prioritise the learning outcomes of children from marginalised backgrounds given their high exposure to increased inequalities.

Not enough

But any such interventions alone, however effective, are not enough. Current shrinking economic activity, heavy debt burdens and depleting revenues are limiting governments from investing in human capital for long-term development. We need a fundamental shift in the development finance ecosystem to support developing countries in coping with these challenges and in building their resilience, which is integral to the recovery and strengthening of their education systems.

To assist with this, we have developed a Universal Vulnerability Index which could transform eligibility for development finance. We must move beyond the narrow analysis of GDP and per capita income as criteria for assessing entitlement to support towards a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of broader factors that tend to amplify vulnerability and diminish resilience.

As we successfully conclude the Global Education Summit, it is a pivotal moment for the international community to reform measures of eligibility for access to development finance which will assist developing countries in better spending on educating their people and rebuilding economies. Continuing with business as usual would be to squander many advances already made and to jeopardise potential progress which is so sorely needed.

Accelerate investment

Education and innovation are the currencies of the 21st century, with digitalisation shaping the future of work, learning, trade, cooperation and societal affairs. To avoid repeating the same mistake, we must accelerate investment in the affordability of digital literacy, connectivity for schools, qualified teachers, hybrid learning solutions and online opportunities for young people based on principles of equity, inclusion and gender equality.

In these challenging times, the world needs a bold, fresh and evidence-based vision for education led by awareness, data and action, while aiming for every new investment not simply to improve learning outcomes but to multiply them.

We need to tackle this learning crisis with the same rigour, resolve and resourcefulness that have been demonstrated against Covid-19. We need to work with students, families, educators, policymakers and international stakeholders to guarantee no child, anywhere, is robbed of their future. Riding the wave simply is not enough. We need to make it our own, a tsunami of hope, rather than despair, whilst the window of opportunity is still available to us.

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