We must get children back to school – but business as usual is not an option

Henrietta Fore & Jutta Urpilainen

23 October 2020

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” Words by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai could not ring more true. Making sure girls and boys all over the world get a good quality education is how we will build a better, more sustainable, more equal and more peaceful world.

Global school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unprecedented disruption to children’s education, with more than a billion students affected in some way.

Those who have returned to school are presented with new challenges – masks, social distancing, a lack of access to handwashing facilities and their parents’ fears of another outbreak. On top of this, as the digital divide deepens, most will have missed out on the chance to learn from home over the past few months. They will have fallen behind as a result, making the prospect of going back to school more daunting for them – and for their teachers, too.

In many ways, however, they are still the lucky ones. The new challenges they face are by far overshadowed by the catastrophic long-term impact of missing out on education altogether, particularly in the most vulnerable countries and those already affected by conflicts or crises. Today, around six in ten schoolchildren worldwide have yet to return to the classroom.

We know from previous crises that when education is interrupted, the poorest and most vulnerable children may never return to school, leaving them exposed to terrible risks. They may be forced into child labour, trafficked or sexually exploited. With essential health, nutrition, immunisation and child protection services interrupted, they are more exposed to undernutrition, disease, mental health issues and abuse. And girls are at increased risk of early marriage and pregnancy.

In these most difficult of circumstances, can we still win the battle to educate our children? The answer to that is a resounding “yes”. But for this, like model students, we will need to work even harder to get the results we want.

Working with its Member States as Team Europe, the European Union has demonstrated the power of working together for better results. And given our proven track record of getting results from our partnerships, the EU and UNICEF can together make a lasting difference to education outcomes worldwide.

There are concrete steps we can take to safeguard our children’s futures. Steps that will build on existing work and strike out in new, innovative directions. This means investing now, so that the most vulnerable children can re-enter education. It means making sure that their schools are safe and their teachers can respond to their needs. It means reshaping education systems so that children graduate with 21st-century skills, ready for the new world before them.

Recently, we have seen impressive change, with many governments providing education online, on television, on the radio and via mobile phone. For instance, in Somalia, offline recorded lessons are being uploaded onto solar-powered tablets and made available to children. In Kyrgyzstan, children can access remote learning through online platforms, three national TV channels and two mobile network applications free of charge. In Viet Nam, certain tests and modules have been dropped from the curriculum, while others have been postponed to the next school year to allow students to catch up on missed learning over the whole of next year, and to reduce academic pressure and psycho-social stress.

So the green shoots of recovery are there. Now it is time to nurture them. This is the moment to reimagine education systems, embrace technology, remove the barriers for the poorest and give all children the same access to modern education systems. This includes innovative approaches to mentorship and internships to bridge from education to the labour market. Children must be equipped with 21st-century skills such as digital skills and entrepreneurship training.

Team Europe is ready to play its part to the full. This reflects our belief in education as a top priority in COVID-19 recovery planning. Education is a lynchpin for societies to make progress in EU priority areas: jobs and growth, technological advances, equality, greener economies. The immense progress in our partner countries over the past 20 years or so, thanks to heavy investment, shows how education can provide a pathway out of poverty and crisis, towards prosperity and good governance, women’s empowerment, and better health and nutrition outcomes.

Education is essential to human development, which underlies all EU investments in international cooperation and this will be boosted in our development financing for the upcoming period.

Indeed, education budgets must be protected from cuts as the global economic crisis bites. Education must be seen as part of the COVID-19 recovery plan: rather than diverting finances away from education, there must be more investment to strengthen education systems. Building back better applies as much to education as to anything else.

The scale of this crisis requires a global, coordinated response; the EU and UNICEF intend to be at the forefront of that response. The education community must jointly develop a global action plan, to pave the way for equitable and quality education for all.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to emerge from this once-in-a-generation crisis doing things differently, addressing inequalities through more sustainable social systems.

Embarking on this huge undertaking means realising that business as usual is not an option. If we learn the right lessons now, we can truly build back better – for our children and their children.


Jutta Urpilainen is EU Commissioner for International Partnerships & Henrietta Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF