The coronavirus pandemic requires immediate responses to ensure the quality of educational outcomes for all children, especially the vulnerable and disadvantaged. We must not allow the opportunity gap to widen as a result of this crisis.
It also presents an opportunity to build back better – planning systemic change that will deliver more effective, more inclusive learning in the medium and long term, and provide greater resilience to such system-level shocks in the future.
Our experts tell us how we can help governments not just to maintain continuity of education and children’s wellbeing, but also to create stronger education systems and institutions than before.
COVID-19 has led to 191 countries closing their education institutions, leaving 1.5 billion children unable to go to school.
Extended school closures could have serious consequences for the education and future life chances of young people across the developed and developing world, with the poorest and most marginalised children being impacted the most.
“There is growing concern that school closures – albeit necessary for public health reasons – will further widen the gap between children living in deprived areas and their better-off peers,” says Andy Guest, global practice leader for education.
“Globally, this pandemic could further widen educational disadvantage between those countries with well-funded and resilient education systems and those that do not.
“In short, the crisis could exacerbate inequalities in education unless we consciously and proactively seek to address this.”
Maintaining continuity of education
We have seen the speed with which many working in the aid sector have been able to redirect efforts to respond to the challenges created. Our own teams from Cambridge Education, Mott MacDonald’s specialist education consultancy, have taken rapid action to help governments and education ministries respond to the pandemic.
“We have quickly adapted some of our programmes to ensure learning continues for every child,” says Andy Brock, divisional general manager, International Education.
“Using the right technology for each context, we have helped create and distribute online and radio lessons and set up virtual teacher training environments.”
These immediate response solutions include:
- Strengthening Education Systems for Improved Learning, Uganda – adapting existing literacy and numeracy lessons for radio broadcast, supported by SMS communication.
- Girls’ Education South Sudan – working with 31 radio stations to broadcast lessons and exploring alternatives for the 43% of households without radio access.
- Transforming Teacher Education and Learning, Ghana – almost 20,000 or 60% of student teachers nationwide have joined online lessons which we’ve been able to continue using cloud-based apps such as Telegram, Google Classroom and WhatsApp.
- Leh Wi Lan, Sierra Leone – supporting the adaptation of current radio lessons to bring them in line with newly scripted lesson plans and continuing to mentor teachers remotely using tablets, phones and bulk SMS.
Many of the strategies being deployed to maintain continuity of education are centred around e-learning. But even in the world’s biggest economies, there can be a stark digital divide.
In the UK, for example, a recent study suggested as many as a million children did not have access to a computer or the internet at home. Many households with internet access have more occupants than devices. The ability to quickly scale up this access in a time of crisis has been shown to be woefully inadequate.
Lack of connectivity often correlates with other indices of social deprivation. Communities most exposed to this potential ‘learning loss’ are also those that are weaker economically and more vulnerable to economic downturns. Employment rates are low while the number of adults without basic qualifications is high.
Andy Guest says: “There is a real danger school closures could entrench or widen inequalities, with long-term impacts on the life chances of younger generations too.
“Therefore, government policies and remote learning programmes cannot take a ‘one size fits all’ approach. There needs to be targeted interventions to address not only technological, but also socio-economic divides.
“To address this, the ability to assess need, implement policy and monitor impact at speed in a rapidly changing environment is critical. But this is not the normal operating mode of well-established education systems – it requires a different set of behaviours and skills.”
By linking the knowledge of recognised educationalists with the breadth of consultancy and project management expertise across Mott MacDonald, Cambridge Education is able to swiftly plan and implement solutions to improve education at organisational, regional and national levels.
It has a long track-record of successfully delivering education services that give young people the best possible start in life. Projects include:
- Early education, UK – supporting the roll-out of government-funded childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds.
- Special educational needs and disability (SEND) reforms, UK – we provided a range of services to support local authorities with implementation of the biggest education reforms in a generation for children and young people with special educational needs.
- Local authority education services, UK – multiple contracts over the past 20 years for the delivery of core education services to more than one million early years and school-aged children.
- Calculus Project, USA – changing the way high schools in Massachusetts, New York and Florida support African-American, Latino and low-income students to achieve success in advanced maths.
- Victorian Professional Learning Communities programme, Australia – coaching and support for principals in Victorian schools, including online delivery of continuing professional development services.
Safeguarding the wellbeing of children
Lockdowns, self-isolation and social distancing can put some children at greater risk of neglect or abuse.
In normal times children are seen by many different adults every day – not just teachers but neighbours, grandparents and family friends.
But if families are not coping and need extra support with parenting, or if a child is experiencing neglect or abuse, there are fewer opportunities for adults to spot the signs and help or raise the alarm.
Besides welfare, there are related concerns around learning. Many studies have identified the correlation between parental involvement and academic achievement.
With parents becoming the leading actors in their children’s education as a result of school closures, those children living in dysfunctional or troubled households will be impacted the most, again potentially increasing inequality.
Andy Guest adds: “We know that co-ordination is key during times of crisis. This is especially true with social distancing rules in place, where normal face-to-face meetings do not take place.
“The situation calls for better communication, more clarity of process and even greater attention on the smallest indicators of concern.
“Many governments have made good use of both public and private sector data to track the health and movement of their populations. But how much of this is looking at the vast wealth of other data sets such as supermarket loyalty schemes to understand whether there are changes to the average family shop in disadvantaged communities?”
Building back better
Many of the immediate responses are focusing on technology to support remote learning. Around the world, schools are using existing platforms from the likes of Microsoft and Google, as well as conferencing apps like Zoom, to deliver lessons for their pupils.
“It is too early to say that bricks-and-mortar schools will be replaced by e-learning anytime soon,” says Andy Guest. “If anything, this current pandemic has reminded people of the value of direct social interaction.
“But now is the time for developing strategies on how to rebuild education systems that build resilience into their design.
“It is about considering greater focus on the role of the professional educator and investing in them to be better placed to manage innovative delivery. It is thinking about whether our curriculums have become too bloated, and if more divergence could also increase the ability to weather any future crises.
“We need to exploit more consistently the benefits of education technology, but also challenge the role of examinations in our system.
“This is about planning policy now, for a future that is still to emerge.”
Andy Brock adds: “COVID-19 has the potential to create even greater inequity in education systems, but it also gives us the opportunity to offer something radically different.
“The opportunity to create and solidify connections so countries can strengthen and develop their education systems and build back better.
“We've identified five interconnected themes that we believe are crucial for an effective long-term response creating stronger education systems where no child is left behind.”
These themes are:
- Protecting the safety and wellbeing of children – seeking the best ways to help parents and communities with home-schooling and give them the tools to maintain their children’s safety and wellbeing.
- Retaining and developing capacity of teachers and other education professionals – identifying creative ways to continue teacher development throughout closure to ensure teachers are retained, up to date and motivated for when schools reopen.
- Supporting continued learning for pupils through remote provision – exploring how to better work with communities so that they continue to demand content, and developing ways to monitor how effectively children are learning during the period of school closure.
- Supporting national education systems – looking at what gaps and impediments to long-term planning exist in each country and how we can find rapid solutions.
- Closing the gaps with accelerated learning – promoting accelerated learning approaches to help children to bridge gaps faster, including those gaps that already existed before COVID-19.
Andy Brock continues: “We are supporting education ministries to develop plans to build their systems back stronger so when children can return to the classroom, schools can accelerate learning and put the current challenges behind them.”