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Lessons from lockdown to improve education for all

The pandemic has highlighted systemic weaknesses in education delivery around the world. If we don’t address them, the opportunity to transform the life chances of millions of children, especially in poor countries will be missed, warns Andy Brock.

More than 168M schoolchildren in 14 countries have missed a whole year of classroom learning because their schools have remained largely closed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Studies from previous extended school closures in developing countries, such as those forced by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, have shown that a break in education of just three months can put back a child’s learning and attainment by 12 months. In many countries, social and economic barriers to education are higher for girls than boys, and loss of learning is especially acute for girls.

Those countries that adopted fast, flexible responses to the pandemic are already seeing their education systems recover. Children whose schooling continued via radio and television, online, or who were taught even intermittently, have lost comparatively less ground than those whose education halted in early 2020.

Experience in the last year points the way for policy and investment post-pandemic, to reform teaching and widen access to education for all children in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Real change in education delivery

Real change in education delivery

How might education have changed by 2030? Technology is playing an increasingly important role in education.

Access to digital learning will improve rapidly, thanks to increased development of solar energy, coupled with vastly improved battery life, cheaper smartphones and tablets, and increased network access and affordability. But in the poorest countries, blended learning combining print, radio and TV was what kept education going during the pandemic, and they are important for delivering inclusive education in the future.

Blended learning offers much greater flexibility in school timetables to meet children’s needs, particularly for girls, disadvantaged children and those who have special educational needs and/or disabilities.

Inspiring change: Changing behaviours to forge a gender equal world

Project delivery: Education quality improvement programme (EQUIP), Tanzania

Inspiring change: We can build back girls’ education for the better

Reforming exams and teacher training

Reforming exams and teacher training

Exams drive the way teaching is delivered – ‘teach to the test’ is a mantra in many schools – and fundamental change in education depends on reforming examination systems.

Successive lockdowns and school closures have forced education ministries to assess students’ learning skills and ability (formative assessment), rather than the traditional exam-based test of what they have learned (summative assessment). This shift enables changes to the curriculum and modes of delivery. But it will be hard to sustain.

Reforming exam systems is difficult the world over. Political leadership and strategic planning are needed to achieve lasting change in favour of continuous assessment. Institutions need to be modernised and some of the funding for schools and education authorities should be directed towards better learning outcomes.

Trainee teachers must gain classroom experience before qualification and more female teachers must be recruited. Teachers must broaden their roles, becoming leaders of learning rather than guardians of content. And they must understand the value of flexible delivery methods.

Increasing resilience

Increasing resilience

One of the important lessons from COVID-19 is that all aspects of education must become more resilient, to avoid disruption from future risks including pandemics, natural disasters, the effects of climate change, and rapid social and technological changes.

Teachers and children themselves are key actors in building resilience, which encompasses social and emotional learning, mental health, psychological and social support, and education about sexual and reproductive health and rights. Broadening the focus of schooling to include emotional and psychological resilience alongside academic learning strengthens the resilience of children individually, contributing to a more resilient society.

Meanwhile, flexible, adaptable, digitally inclusive and blended modes of delivering education, developed and proven during the pandemic, improve the resilience of education delivery against disruption. Even here vigilance is needed against a digital divide exacerbating existing inequalities.

If politicians and education decision-makers heed the lessons of the pandemic, they will embrace digitally assisted, blended, flexible approaches to teaching and learning, new modes of assessment and improved ways of training and incentivising teachers. If they don’t, then millions of children, especially girls, stand to be educationally disadvantaged.

Project delivery: Strengthening education systems in a time of crisis

Inspiring change: Meeting the COVID-19 challenges to children’s education

      Cambridge Education is Mott MacDonald’s education consultancy. It is a member of the UNESCO Global Education Coalition, a platform for collaboration and exchange to protect the right to education during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

      Read how Cambridge Education developed innovative responses to the pandemic on its UK aid-funded education programmes across sub-Saharan Africa.

      Andy Brock, international education portfolio manager, Cambridge Education

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