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Covid-19: 72 million children pushed into learning poverty

Covid-19 related educational disruption risks worsening learning poverty by 10 points, from 53 to 63 percent in low- and middle-income countries. This implies that an additional 72 million primary school aged children might be pushed into learning poverty – the percentage of 10-year-old children who cannot read and understand a simple story – according to the December 2020 World Bank report.

The report also indicates that 382 million children of the primary school going age are learning poor, either out of school or below the minimum proficiency level in reading. The number could rise to 454 million, with the additional 72 million a result of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent educational disruption.

With the world still grappling with the lethal virus, educational disruption is yet to persist, worsening learning poverty especially in low- and middle-income countries.

In some parts of the world, the second wave of the pandemic is already wreaking havoc, disturbing normal learning in schools. In Zimbabwe – a sub-Saharan African country – for instance, some students are given specific days for coming to school in an attempt to minimise the spread of the virus.

This would also mean that the normal learning approach which would see learners attending classes from Monday to Friday has been disturbed.

Noted also from the report is that even 7 months after the outbreak of the pandemic almost 600 million students still had not returned to school. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation also reported that more than 1.5 billion students and youth are or have been affected by the pandemic across the world.

Most important to note is the fact that the most affected age group is the one leaning on learning poverty – children of the primary school going age – as they cannot easily adapt to e-learning or blended approaches proposed by educational institutions, let alone have access to these facilities.

These children are likely to lose $10 trillion in labour earnings over their future working lives, an amount equivalent to global GDP, or half the United States annual economic output, or twice the global annual public expenditure on primary and secondary education as indicated in the report.

Although the pandemic is seen as a catastrophe owing to its disruptive nature, it has also been seen as a potential catalyst for the transformation of the education sector. It has laid bare the loopholes that are yet to be addressed to support life long learning.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in education systems, spurring policymakers and other education stakeholders to recognize the cost of inaction and fuelling innovations.”

“Before the crisis, numerous attempts had been made to transform the delivery of education in developed and developing countries in terms of an enhanced learning experience supported by effective pedagogy, reimagined learning environments, and resources, including education technology, but most of these attempts had failed to become established features of most education systems”, reads part of the report.

Where remote learning systems were adopted and implemented, lack of access to these systems have exposed learning inequalities which existed even before the pandemic.

The report articulates the chief aspects, which are disparities in home learning environments and the digital divide.

The school closures also revealed the role parents and home caregivers play in  the child’s learning and the importance of a home environment that compliments learning at school.

There is also a need to address the digital divide that can affect the learning process. Learners in the rural areas have limited or no access to the internet or even electronic devices. In other countries, bandwidth is expensive and the poor and those in the rural areas do not afford internet services.

During the peak of the lockdown in Zimbabwe for instance, radio lessons were introduced, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education also introduced a digital library and other digital platforms to enhance learning from home.

However, most of the learners in the rural areas were obviously left out, worsened by the fact that some of these learners are not yet computer literate and cannot even afford data services.

The report spells out the organisation’s vision for the future of learning that is centred on the aspiration that learning occurs everywhere and for everyone.

The vision of the future goaled learning with joy, purpose, and rigor for everyone; everywhere, seeks to address learning inequalities, as the pandemic has become a wake-up call for policy makers. It brings up key policy actions which should be considered in the future.

For the creation of systems that facilitate tailored and holistic learning, key policy actions have been laid down and these include:

 – Increase provision of high-quality early childhood development services by making holistic, cross-sectoral investments in child development.

– Remove demand-side barriers to getting all children into school by eliminating financial and material barriers.

– Create conditions for learning to occur with joy, purpose, and rigor to keep children in school by emphasizing foundational learning before expecting learners to progress to higher levels of schooling.

– Bolster the role of the family and communities in learning and improve learning environments outside of school, particularly at home.

The guidelines for policy makers have also indicated the need for the support of teachers who play a crucial role in the development of a child. Educators at all levels should be valued and tools they need to carryout their duties religiously should be made available. The framework regarding what should be done for teachers is summarised as shown below:

– Reshape the teaching profession as a meritocratic, socially valued career and hold teachers to high professional standards.

– Expand engagement in pre-service training (at teacher training institutes, normal schools, and universities), with an emphasis on the practicum component.

– Invest in in-service teacher professional development that is on-going, tailored, focused, and practical.

– Provide teachers with tools and techniques for effective teaching.

Learners should have access to learning resources both in schools and at home and in the community at large. An effective curriculum should support the provision of adequate inputs to facilitate learning while addressing learning inequalities which can be worsened by digital technologies.

Resources such as books should be made available equitably, with affordability as an important issue of concern – which should not also compromise quality. The report also laid down specific areas to be addressed as summarised below:

– Ensure that the curriculum is effective (adjusted to the level of the students and the capacity of the system) and provide detailed guidance to teachers through highly structured lesson plans that can be used by teachers who need them.

– Use assessments judiciously.

– Ensure that children receive high-quality, age-appropriate books.

– Ensure that learners, teachers, and school leaders can access and effectively harness technology to achieve learning objectives

The school systems should be revolutionised to provide an appropriate learning environment in the new normal.

A safe, welcoming and non-discriminatory learning environment should be created to enable joy, purpose and rigor for every learner.   The policy actions provided in the report to address this area are given in a summary below:

– Ensure that all children and youth have a space to learn that meets minimum infrastructure standards for safety and inclusion.

– Create conditions to prevent and address bullying and any form of discrimination and violence in and around the school.

– Make schools inclusive so that all learners (including those with disabilities) feel welcome, have access, and can participate in quality learning experiences.

– Teach students first in the language they use and understand.

Lastly, effective systems management complements all the critical actions that the World Bank urges countries to take into consideration to cope with Covid-19 induced educational disruption.

At the school level, the resources needed as indicated should be managed effectively, teachers need a leadership that values their role, and conditions to keep learners in school are  created by leaders who are also managers of educational institutions. The necessary policy actions in this case therefore include:

– Strengthen human resource function of education systems to professionalize school leadership.

– Provide school leaders with tools to manage with autonomy.

– Invest in system leadership and management capacity to support schools.

UNESCO says education is a fundamental human right which should be kept in continuation during the Covid-19 period and beyond.

The World Bank’s policy actions should be adopted and localised to ensure learning continues and that learning poverty is reduced.

– J. Salani

Download full report at World Bank

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