The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the education sector around the world and will continue to do so for some time to come. School closures alone are estimated by UNESCO (in 2020) to have affected over 1.1 billion students worldwide. While the pandemic has affected all corners of life across every community, education in the developing world has had its own unique set of challenges, from lack of access to remote learning channels to little financial support for independent low fee private schools (LFPS). These schools play a significant role in reducing the number of out of school children and without them the Sustainable Development Education Goal for 2030 would not just be a challenge, but an impossibility. According to Global Schools Forum, prior to the pandemic roughly one in five primary school children and one in four secondary pupils were educated in the non-state sector. Without this top-up provision of education public schools would struggle to cater for those millions of children, notwithstanding the fact that the global figure for out of school children still remains over 250 million.   

Given that the pandemic has brought some of the most successful and profitable businesses across the globe to their knees, there should be no doubt that LFPS, who prior to pandemic were run on tight margins and often barely breaking even, will be at the epicenter of this pandemic-induced education crises, particularly in developing countries. For government and key stakeholders to respond effectively to this evolving situation, we need to understand the precise effects of COVID-19 on LFPS so that mitigation measures and support programs can be designed not only for the reopening of schools but also to build resilience.

This is why we at IDP Foundation commissioned research group Associates for Change (AfC) to conduct an impact assessment in Ghana, aimed at investigating the extent to which COVID-19 has affected the operations of LFPS within our Rising Schools Program. The intention of this assessment was also to identify the critical needs of the schools and the type of support required to assist with their re-opening. 

Here are some of the key findings: 

Operational Status of LFPS

AfC examined the operational status of LFPS in order to identify those who would be ready to reopen when government lifted the closure notice and those who felt they may struggle to do so. The assessment revealed that out of the 40 LFPS sampled, 65% were at risk of closing down with 15% either closed down or closing down at the time of the field work. The remainder were resilient and ready to reopen with minimal assistance. 

Needs of LFPS in the context of COVID-19

During the closures a lack of operational capital and compromised cash flow, due to the loss of income from tuition and canteen fees, put considerable financial strain on school proprietors. Of the 40 schools included in the study, 59% were unable to continue spending on salaries, utilities and infrastructure and as a result found themselves losing teachers and facing disrepair and damage of their school buildings.  In addition to the financial effects of the pandemic on LFPS the AfC assessment found that a huge learning gap was created due to the lack of remote learning, with only 5% of students from the 40 schools accessing Ghana’s online learning channel.  These key challenges resulted in the critical needs of financial support, bridging the learning gap and the recruitment of skilled teachers. 

Financial support for LFPS Activities

As a result of the pandemic, parents who have been dealing with job lay-offs, pay cuts and market interruption for farm produce, may not be able pay outstanding fees owed to the schools. Interviews conducted by AfC found that 70% of parents were unable to continue paying their children’s school fees. Therefore, current school management obligations such as salary payment and other financial obligations (including loan repayments) have resulted in the majority of LFPS suffering major financial difficulties. Financial challenges have been compounded by the extra burden of meeting new government safety regulations for reopening and managing schools in the wake of the pandemic. The assessment revealed that financial support in some form, ie loans or grants, is needed to help keep the schools afloat after reopening. For the majority of the schools this financial support will have been used to meet the schools’ operational expenses in the first few months of reopening.

Support for Bridging the Learning Gap Created by Schools Closure

Most LFPS are located in rural and peri-urban areas serving lower income households who struggled to roll out any form of remote leaning resources for their students during the closures due to lack of capacity. For those who were able to do so participation was generally low because of the absence of requisite equipment such as computers or smart phones and internet access. The free radio and television learning programs were also not fully utilized (only 11% of students accessed learning radio and 18% for the TV channel) due to challenges such as lack of timetables, distractions from friends and the absence of parents to supervise.  During a recent visit by the IDPF Team to some of these schools in Accra, teachers revealed that the majority of the children who returned back to school after reopening had forgotten almost everything that they had learned in school as well as having lost interest in education, with many having become used to being idle. This highlights the urgent need to roll out a program that will bring the children back on track and help bridge the learning gap created by the 10 months of school closure. 

Training and Staffing Needs of LFPS

The assessment further revealed an urgent need for the recruitment of new teachers. Due to the pandemic and subsequent closure of the schools by the government, the majority of LFPS were unable to pay teachers’ salaries for several months. The deferment of salary payment forced the majority of teachers to resort to other forms of income-generating activities. According to the headteachers interviewed by AfC, 62% of their teachers were searching for other jobs. While some proprietors tried to mitigate teacher loss during closures through some form of financial or health support the lack of a regular salary meant staff turnover was inevitable, therefore creating the need for new teacher recruitment and training.

Focusing on resilience to build back better

The World Bank estimates that without effective policy implementation, students currently attending primary and secondary school could face, on average, a reduction of $872 in their yearly earnings. This is approximately equivalent to $16,000 over a student’s work life at present value. In the midst of uncertainties about how to address the long-term impact of the pandemic, a crucial first step is recognizing the importance of the role of LFPS in complementing public schools in the provision of quality education to low-income households. This requires a focus on building the resilience of these schools by promoting financial stability and teaching innovations through effective school management models and pedagogic and adaptive learning methods. As global donors and development partners increase investment in education, it is important that all education stakeholders address the challenges these independent low fee private schools face in order to reduce learning inequality. There needs to be a unified commitment to ensure that all children, regardless of which school they attend, are not left behind in the world’s quest to bridge the pandemic- induced learning gap and a robust education eco-system is cemented for the future.

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