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How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the Sustainable Development Goals and what this means for the future of education in the developing world

Female students at New Hope Academy in Accra
July 2021

Corina Gardner

Chief Executive Officer

The UN has recently updated the context of its SDGs to reflect the shifting socioeconomic and health and wellbeing landscape in the wake of COVID-19. While the world is still in the grip of the pandemic and constantly adapting its response to this unimaginable crisis, the development sector has been forced to look at its pre-pandemic strategies, while assessing how to adapt. All stakeholders must now consider new ways in which we can tackle not just the immediate impact of COVID-19, but also the reality of this unconceivable setback to achieving systematic change. Building back better may be a motivational mantra for our passionate fight back to normality, however if normal means a return to the inequities of the world before COVID-19, then I fear we may have learnt nothing from this pandemic.

What we should really take from this is the need to be better than before. It will be a very long road to recovery, let alone improvement, and the only way to achieve this is simply to get all hands-on deck, together. For the education sector, collective responsibility couldn’t be more critical. A sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic will be incomplete without a co-operative effort towards strengthening global education systems.

While the pandemic has interrupted almost every sector of the global economy, education has been one of the most severely impacted. School closures, lack of access to remote learning options and economic decline has resulted in many students having little to no access to education for a sustained period, which has created a significant learning gap. There is a need for new approaches to teaching, not just for the purposes of ‘catch up’, but also to achieve real impact on learning outcomes in the most marginalized communities. New policies on the regulation and support of all schools, both state and non-state, are crucial, and must be inclusive of the independent low-fee private schools (LFPS) who currently serve large portions of the population in many developing countries without assistance. Without these schools the public education system is likely to become increasingly overwhelmed and the trajectory of reducing out of school children could very quickly reverse.
The reality of the UN’s education goal, before and after COVID-19

In the updated context of the SDG4 on education, the UN state that “before COVID-19 progress towards inclusive and equitable quality education was too slow” and that “over 200 million children will still be out of school in 2030.” More alarming is the reality of extended school closures undoing the progress that had been made, however slow it may have been. World Bank estimates 7 million primary and secondary students are at risk of dropping out of school, leading to a 2% increase in out of school children (on top of the 258 million children currently estimated to be out of school). This could be catastrophic for the developing world. Education is key to reducing intergenerational poverty, and its disruption is likely to make the fight against wealth inequality even more challenging, for much longer. If dropout rates are on the rise, as well as an increase in migration due to loss of work, this poses a real threat on the GDP of developing countries as the next generation of children graduate into the workforce.

COVID-19 is likely to see the world have the worst recession since the great depression. To manage the long-term effects on the economies of developing countries, it is crucial to bridge the learning gap caused by school closures, which currently are estimated to reduce this generation of children’s earning capacity by $1trillion. The World Bank already estimates that in the absence of effective policy action, each student from today’s cohort in primary and secondary school could face, on average, a reduction of $872 in yearly earnings. This is approximately equivalent to $16,000 over a student’s work life at present value. For economic growth to be sustainable, it is imperative that a focus on creating a more resilient approach to learning across all schools is established. According to a recent report, although 90% of governments adopted some form of remote learning during COVID-19 closures, reaching almost 70% of schoolchildren, about 30% of schoolchildren globally either did not have the necessary technology at home, or were not reached by the remote learning policies. The highest rate of children that were not reached were in sub-Saharan Africa.

The only way to tackle this is to mobilize all education providers, both state and non-state, to work together in preventing long-term increases in the out of school population. A significant number of children around the world are educated outside of state schools. 2018 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics stated that 42% of pre-primary, 18% of primary, and 26% of secondary students globally were enrolled in the non-state sector, in a mix of non-profit, for-profit and faith-based institutions. While these numbers may include the more elite private schools, in the developing world, they are mainly low fee private schools. In India, just under half of children are educated in privately managed schools, with one third coming from the poorest 40% of the population. UNESCO’s World Education Blog states that in sub-Saharan Africa, seven major cities have approximately 1.8 million low-income children educated in non-state schools, with enrolment in this sector as high as 84% (Kampala) and 60% (Nairobi). These schools not only provide key education services to their communities, but also present a unique opportunity for learning experimentation. Through public-private partnerships (PPPs), trials of learning innovations can be conducted in LFPS and rolled out across the public sector.

Learning loss and the deepening of inequalities in education

The disruption of education during school closures has posed a significant risk to learning outcomes for this generation of children. This threatens to exacerbate intergenerational poverty and inequality, and could make it even more challenging to ensure that no one is left behind, especially among low-income households, and particularly, girls. Women and children are part of the most vulnerable groups being hit the hardest by the pandemic, as highlighted in the UN’s reaffirmed SDGs on equality, and education is key to readdressing this. Evidence from past crises and recent reports suggests that school enrolments are likely to decline significantly, with some students moving to public schools from independent low fee private schools, due to the economic impact of the pandemic on parent’s income, with others delaying entry due to issues such as migration and teenage pregnancy, or dropping out completely. Increasing access to education for girls in underserved communities by supporting the role non-state schools play in providing education for all will reduce teenage pregnancies, and in turn, improve inequalities. In addition, many LFPS are owned by women, providing not only a critical service to their community, but also inspiring girls to pursue their education.

In so much as technology supported, and continues to support, the learning of children during the pandemic, the long period of school closures exposed dramatic inequities in technology access and utilization. The majority of continued learning support during closures relied on technology infrastructures which are either non-existent or inaccessible to low-income families. These gaps in access to online education and digital services have widened the already substantial educational inequalities that exist in such communities, and are likely to have a long-lasting impact if not addressed. Low-income families in underserved communities presently face a worsening learning gap, because learning support systems have failed to cater for them. There is a desperate need for solutions that are designed specifically for these communities and independent schools, that cater to their needs by investing in innovations that work within these technological limitations.

The harsh reality of extended school closures is a learning crisis, and one that is not evenly distributed, but rather targeted in the lower half of performers, and the most disadvantaged. These are the pupils that need the most attention, with ‘catch-up’ interventions that must be specifically designed for their needs and environment. We are not just tackling a loss of learning during the closures, but also learning degeneration and demotivation. Children who were once avid school attendees, packed with uniform pride and a drive to learn, now have fallen out of the practice of learning, and enthusiasm for it. Relying on squeezing the current curriculum into the remainder of the school year and focusing on rote learning, will do little to bridge the learning gap. Many pupils from marginalised communities already found themselves three or more grades behind prior to the school closures. Therefore, we need to completely rethink how and what we teach, alongside an extension of the teaching pool, to involve family members, youth workers and other community members, in the recovery years to come. And the best way to do this? All hands-on deck of course. A mixed education economy already exists; however, it can only be made healthy and cater fully for the learning needs of the developing world if all parts of the system (both public and private) are included in recovery policies and are also supported to remain functional and resilient.

Where do we go from here?

Sustainable development requires impact investing in market-based solutions, particularly in education where independent low fee private schools offer a lifeline to many parents and pupils, as well as create economic independence for the community. What the pandemic showed is that in many developing countries, interventions rolled out by government during school closures and after school reopening did not reach all children, especially those in these independently run schools, thereby further deepening the inequality gap. In addition, the regulatory environment related to credit access and formal registration and/or accreditation represents barriers for these schools to access support during crises, and to make quality improvements.

With global foreign investment expected to decline, a commitment to education for all is key to the long-term goal of sustainability beyond aid. Empowering local education entrepreneurs and supporting their provision of schooling in underserved communities is key to this. Non-state schools serve a significant proportion of the world’s population with access to education. However, in most instances, they receive little to no support from government and donor agencies, because they are seen as profit oriented. As the world strives to leapfrog access to education, non-state schools must be seen as an important contributor to the implementation of the SDGs, and one that can be strengthened through effective PPPs, to achieve greater results. They require support to improve on their management and accountability mechanisms, in order to serve as safe and inclusive spaces for learning.

Addressing the financing hurdles of non-state schools by leveraging donor and philanthropic capital through innovative financing models will provide a complementary pathway to address access, quality, and representation in the education sector, ultimately ensuring no child gets left behind. Simply put, building back better and ensuring sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic means addressing the needs of all sectors of the education landscape, including independent low-fee private schools. Citing education as the way out of a crisis is not new, however, a renewed commitment to a collective responsibility for its provision and a converged solution for its delivery could lessen the impact of this pandemic in the future.

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