Pandemic could leave 20 million children 'lost' from schools

In a new series focusing on Access to Education around the world, in conjunction with the Global Partnership for Education, its chief executive tells 'The National' that investing in education is essential to recovering from the pandemic

access to education

The education crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic could mean 20 million children may never return to school, the Global Partnership for Education has said as it calls for more investment to fund recovery.
The leading funding vehicle said there was a "real hunger" for digital tools but with teachers at the heart of the learning experience.

Alice Albright, chief executive of the GPE, said children's education has been badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has widened the inequalities in the sector. The GPE is seeking $5 billion in the coming years to sustain education in countries that are home to more than one billion children. Ms Albright said education must be rebuilt, even as governments grapple with the new economic realities.

A terrible “digital divide” meant that children in the developing world were not able to utilise basic things such as Wi-Fi and connectivity that are often taken for granted in other countries. “There's all kinds of statistics that show that connectivity has got an enormous way to go in terms of being widely available,” she added.

The way to “a brighter future” and coming out of “the education crisis” is by investing in children, she said.

“We need to look at how education is financed and ask ourselves, are we prioritising it well enough. I say the answer's no, we're not.

“This is not just another public service, of which there are many, education is an investment in our future as an investment in hope, it's an investment in future talents, it’s an investment in how to enable the children of the world today to be ready for the 21st century or the remainder of the 21st century. So it's not just any public service it's, in some ways, the most vital public service,” Ms Albright said.

Even before the pandemic, low income countries faced multiple hurdles in developing their education systems.

Ms Albright said the most systemic challenge is the inequity of education, with the poorest and most at risk children the ones who are not only most likely to bear the brunt of Covid-19, but who are also facing the greatest challenges recovering.

“We're particularly concerned about equity. This is whether or not girls are getting education. That's a huge focus for us.”

She said “that the countries that are going to be hit hardest by the pandemic are the low income countries and within those countries, it's girls, it's refugees, children with disabilities, it's children who live in remote villages”.

Some 87 countries are eligible for the GPE’s funding, but the organisation had to react fast when the Covid outbreak surged.

“We put together what became $508 million of financing, the vast majority of which has gone to countries to help them contend with the education impact of the pandemic, and it's made my organisation the largest provider in the world of the emergency Covid response for education,” Ms Albright said.

“So we've now provided grants to 66 countries to help them overcome the pandemic. And that's gone on things like distance learning, reopening schools, reaching out to girls and other, you know, really marginalised parts of the country and society, and training teachers to work in this new, difficult environment,” she added.

In Sudan, it has been used to deliver health messaging and protect young girls from sexual abuse and violence, while in Afghanistan hygiene supplies have been distributed to schools with staff and students trained on keeping safe.

At the peak of the pandemic there were around 1.6 billion children out of school and in many countries teaching was moved online.

That is not to say the classic strengths of the classroom can be forsaken. Ms Albright said the shutdown “reminded people that some of the tried and true traditions and basics of education,” such as being in a classroom with a trained teacher, could never be replaced. It also underlined that online schooling can never “take the place of interaction with others”.

“You know, how do you learn things? What do you learn from being with peers? How do you build teams? How do you solve problems together?

“Those kinds of things, maybe we'll call the sort of softer skill, part of the equation cannot be delivered via a device. And I think that's what people are really missing.

“One of the things that we know is happening in the developing world is that schools are, apart from being places where children learn, places where children receive school meals … their places of safety sometimes.”

Looking ahead, the focus is on ensuring that donors match the ambition spearheaded by Ms Albright.

“Now is the time to dig down deep. Find the money we need, organise it in the right way, work very closely with countries, put them in the driver's seat, and help get us to a place where we have much stronger education systems that will get the most marginalised kid in the world back into school,” said Ms Albright.