Over the past three years, the pandemic has brought profound disruptions to children’s learning, exacerbating the pre-existing global learning crisis. We need to act urgently to recover learning and seize this opportunity to build education systems back better.
Yet, new findings from the fourth round of the Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures show that many countries are still not taking targeted and proven steps to address learning loss. As the Transforming Education Summit takes place in New York, 16–19 September 2022, further reflection and stocktaking is required to transform education to ensure Sustainable Development Goal 4 can be achieved.
From Learning Recovery to Education Transformation, a new joint report by the OECD, UNESCO, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, UNICEF and the World Bank, explores how countries are progressing in the RAPID actions to recover learning: Reach every child and keep them in school; Assess learning levels regularly; Prioritize teaching the fundamentals; Increase the efficiency of instruction; and Develop psychosocial health and wellbeing. We find that while countries have made some progress to implement measures that address learning recovery, we must amplify our efforts to urgently mitigate the effects of the pandemic on children’s learning and overall well-being. However, given the magnitude of the challenge, for learning recovery to be effective, equitable and sustainable, it also has to be transformational.
How do we recover learning post-COVID and transform education for the better? We need to…
1. Implement a ‘REACH all’ effort.
Reaching every child is the common denominator of education recovery. At primary and secondary education levels, most countries are taking measures such as automatic re-enrolment and community mobilization campaigns to return children to school. However, a quarter of countries have yet to collect information on children who have and have not returned to school. For truly transformative education systems, we need to eliminate barriers that exclude vulnerable groups, ensure the right to education is fully captured in national legal and regulatory frameworks, strengthen flexible models of education, and invest in strengthened Education Management Information Systems for disaggregated and real-time information.
2. ASSESS children’s learning levels
In March 2022, a review of existing studies found that fewer than 20 per cent of countries had published information on the actual impact of school closures on learning. As children return to school, we need to assess what they know, understand and can do, to inform policies and instruction. Encouragingly, a majority of countries have resumed standardized testing programmes (including large-scale assessments and high-stakes examinations) in school year 2021–2022, particularly for math and reading, but only a small share of countries is trying to understand the impact of school closures on non-cognitive skills, which are as equally important for children to succeed in today’s world. A diverse set of assessment activities, including the use of formative assessments and various technologies such as digitalized assessments, can help students become more aware of how and what they learn, and help teachers understand what factors may hinder or facilitate their students’ learning progress.
3. And PRIORITIZE curriculum standards and teaching to meet students where they are
We need to prioritize fundamental knowledge and skills in the curriculum to help children recover more quickly from learning loss. In many countries, children lacked foundational skills even before the pandemic, and overloaded curricula makes it difficult for them to catch up – especially after long periods of school closures. Despite the loss of instructional time during the pandemic, fewer than half of countries reported implementing curricular adjustments at primary and secondary levels. To support curricular transformation, countries will need to ensure a stronger alignment among curriculum, assessment and instruction, with teachers involved in co-designing and facilitating curricular adjustments.
4. INCREASE instructional efficiency through proven measures
Worryingly, few countries appear to be investing in proven measures to mitigate learning loss: Only 39 per cent reported implementing measures on increased instructional time, 29 per cent on tutoring programmes, and 16 per cent on targeted instruction. Instead of ad hoc programmes or fragmented policy interventions, countries must implement multi-year, evidence-based interventions and provide extensive support to teachers, who are on the frontlines of driving recovery in classrooms. For longer-term transformation, countries need to improve licensing and accreditation schemes for teacher recruitment and make teaching an attractive profession by enhancing teacher well-being through adequate remuneration and working conditions. Teacher professional development must be continuous, tailored, and focused, and include training for digital skills and effective use of technology. The design and planning of these policies should actively engage teachers themselves through social dialogue in policy development.
5. DEVELOP children’s overall well-being
Aside from its negative effects on learning, the pandemic has imperiled children’s mental health and overall well-being. The reopening of schools presents an exceptional opportunity to ensure that all children have access to a safe and supportive learning environment with enhanced access to essential services. Yet, fewer than two thirds of countries reported implementing psychosocial and mental health support for primary- and secondary-level students and teachers. To strengthen resilience against future shocks, understanding learners’ and teachers’ needs is critical to ensure schools provide comprehensive services through a whole-of-society approach, with collaboration across sectors including education, child protection, health and nutrition.
Lastly, sustainable and equitable education financing is essential to recover and transform education. While more countries – 77 per cent at primary and secondary levels – reported increasing their education financing from 2020 to 2021 than had been previously anticipated in the third survey round, there are wide gaps by country income. Fewer than four in 10 low-and lower-middle-income countries, compared to nine in 10 high-income countries, reported an increase in their education budgets. As overall total public spending is strained by increasing fiscal pressures and inflation, there is a risk that education spending in low-and-lower-middle income countries will not be adequate to take urgent actions needed to mitigate lost learning. A transformation of education financing – including prioritizing allocations, revamping how financial resources are raised and invested, and promoting innovations for increased efficiency in spending – is needed for sustainable, long-term improvements.
At the Transforming Education Summit, we put a spotlight on the global education crisis and the need to mobilize action towards recovering learning losses and transforming education. To achieve this, we cannot fall back on business-as-usual, pre-pandemic ways. We need bold, new reforms to ensure all education systems not only recover from the effects of the pandemic, but also build forward better towards a future where all children can learn and develop to their potential.
Download the full report.
Learn more about the Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures.
About the authors
Stefania Giannini – Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO
Robert Jenkins – Global Director, Education and Adolescent Development, UNICEF
Jaime Saavedra – Global Director for Education, World Bank
Andreas Schleicher – Director, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD