UNESCO has warned of years of lost learning due to a lack of pandemic stimulus spending on education.
Research made available to The National from the UN body shows that education received just 0.8 per cent of the global economic packages designed to mitigate the pandemic.
It also shows that two-thirds of the world’s poorest countries reduced their first post-Covid education budget, compared to one-third of the world's richest countries.
UNESCO is now warning of a $2 billion drop in resources into 2022 and that it could be six years before 2018 spending levels are reached again.
Even within the wealthiest G20 nations the share of the extra spending for education was just 2 per cent across 13 of the countries, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Its study found that a quarter of all school days had been lost across three lockdown periods from May 2020 to February 2021.
The lack of internet access in low-income countries is particularly crippling, rendering attempts to roll-out distance learning futile.
Disadvantages varied across countries. Just 7 per cent of the poorest fifth of households in Ethiopia had access to a radio.
In Ecuador, 23 per cent of children without a connection at home were doing zero school work, the organisation found. Across South America just 45 per cent had access to a computer.
“However many governments around the world are trying to introduce good solutions such as [online] learning, they are not the perfect substitute for time in the classroom,” said Manos Antoninis, director of the Global Education Monitoring Report team at UNESCO.
“Furthermore, hundreds of millions of young people in low and middle-income countries simply don't have any access to [the internet].
"At best, they have some radio and TV programmes; in practice, they haven't got anything but their own motivation to continue learning using textbooks.”
The Covid lockdown effect is also being felt in high-income countries such as the UK and Germany where surveys have discovered accelerating education inequalities during the pandemic.
A National Foundation for Education Research survey of 200 schools in the UK found that 11 per cent of the most disadvantaged were six months behind in their studies.
The lack of education prioritisation marks a setback for generally improving trends seen over the last two decades.
Between 1999 and 2015 average government education spending doubled in real terms. As a share of GDP the rise is less stellar, up from 4.6 per cent to 4.7 per cent.
And global disparities remain marked. Prior to the pandemic, high-income countries were spending annually the equivalent of $8,501 for every child’s education compared to just $48 in low-income countries.
Low- and lower-middle-income countries already face a widening financing gap and UNESCO has estimated these costs could wrench open the gap by as much as $45 million - or a third.
If this were to transpire, then significant pressure would be placed upon the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 4 which aims to ensure that by 2030 “all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”
UAE climbs into ranks of top 10 global education donors
Development aid filled some of the gap and prior to the pandemic had grown to reach $15.6 billion globally in 2018, the highest amount ever recorded for basic education.
Much of the later years' increase came from the UAE and Saudi Arabia as the two countries moved into the ranks of the top 10 donors, giving a combined $627 million in 2018.
"The UAE has appeared on the surface of the aid agenda when some of the world's richest countries are moving away," Mr Antoninis told The National.
Prior to the crisis researchers had already detected a decline in the priority for education in the Official Development Assistance (ODA) benchmark set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
UNESCO has now issued a clarion call demanding an increased prioritisation of education. RISE research programme has calculated the effects on children’s education should Covid mitigation follow one of the three scenarios.
The concern is that if education continues to languish behind other fiscal and aid priorities, then pre-existing inequalities will mushroom.
“We have inequalities at different levels, we have inequalities between the richest countries and the poorest countries,” said Mr Antoninis.
“88 per cent of youth in high-income countries completed secondary school, while only 15 per cent did the same in low-income countries.”
Mr Antoninis cites education inequalities that exist within national borders. “The richest households in low and middle-income countries are three times as likely to complete secondary school as the poorest,” he said.
“And even among those who complete secondary school, the richest are twice as likely to achieve the minimum skills of literacy and numeracy.”
The UK schools survey found that in March and April last year, the learning gap between rich and poor pupils increased by almost a half.
In Germany, asked whether their child was learning much less, 72 per cent of parents of low achieving children agreed, while the figure for high achievers was 58 per cent.
The knock-on consequences are not limited to missed development opportunities for those deprived of an education.
“When you have poorer countries not progressing enough in education then immediately it impacts on a range of development outcomes that ultimately also affect the rest of the world,” said Mr Antoninis.
“The obvious one is population growth … less educated women end up having more children.
“This is a collective problem because these countries struggle to find the jobs for these people, harming economic and development prospects.”
Resource strains in Africa are likely to stem from over population. “It's projected that by 2050, Africa will be adding more people to the labour force each year than all the other regions put together,” he added.
Successful spending initiatives must be replicated globally
While UNESCO’s research found that targeted measures to reduce the gap are rare, it did turn the spotlight on some initiatives.
The UK government was highlighted for praise for its school grants for internet access, its provision of adaptation costs, and its tutorial programmes. Child support grants in South Africa were also singled out as helpful measures.
Across the board spending increases are needed to make up lost ground.
With economic growth forecast to drop drastically, UNESCO is projecting that it could take six years for aid to education to return to 2018 levels.
Mr Antoninis fears the pressures of the economic downturn will exacerbate short-term policy-making.
“[Governments] prefer to not think about the future,” he said. “And that's a big mistake because if young people simply cannot receive the education they need to be able to earn tomorrow, then that is going to come back to haunt [governments] in terms of lower growth for their societies.
“It's a very hard message to convey because resources are limited in some countries, but education does deserve a targeted share of these additional resources.
“It's not a call we're making in vain. It's really important.”
Nelson Mandela called education “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” His words have not resounded in the coronavirus crisis.