In the post COVID-19 recovery, we can transform education by turning challenges into opportunities
Learning crisis is a global challenge, it is not an impossible one.
Since arriving in Laos in August 2020, I have met outstanding, inspirational individuals wherever I travel in the 18 provinces of Lao PDR to see the impact of UNICEF’s work on the ground. During my recent travel, I met May, a 22-year-old woman who greeted me graciously in the Lao style, and in perfect English. When I asked her where she learnt to speak English so well, she told me that it was thanks to her mother who encouraged her to study languages, as that would open doors to her around the world. And so May not only did brilliantly in school, graduating from university with flying colours, she also took it upon herself to learn English in her free time and practice it whenever she met a foreign person.
May’s story is a great example of how important it is for parents to value education and instill that value in their children. When parents are involved in their children’s education – especially in the first years of their life – and encourage their learning, children grow up more confident and excel in school.
May is one of hundreds of thousands of children who have benefited from the Lao PDR Governments’ unwavering commitment to attain universal primary education with gender parity, achieved in 2015 with a primary net enrollment rate of 98.8 percent.
Despite this extraordinary achievement, four percent of primary school students and 11 percent of lower secondary school students drop out every year. And the number will likely increase, as families feel the pinch amid rising fuel and food prices all over the world.
As many as 30-40 percent of children enrolling in primary school in 13 out of 18 districts in Laos have not attended pre-primary education and have missed out on an opportunity to develop the cognitive and emotional skills that serve as the building blocks for future learning. Children with access to early childhood education start primary school ready to learn.
In addition, a staggering 98 percent of Grade 5 students have not mastered the numeracy skills, and 92 percent have not mastered the reading literacy skills they are expected to have at the end of primary school. These very same children are more likely to struggle academically and drop out of school. Beyond that, they risk facing poorer employment and social outcomes in the future. This reality is even starker for children from non-Lao-Tai ethnic groups, children living in rural or remote areas, children with disabilities, and children from poor families.
The world is in the depths of a learning crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to estimates, nearly two-thirds of 10-year-olds across low-, middle-, and high-income countries are unable to read and understand a simple story, a measure known as learning poverty.
This is clearly the worst shock to education and learning in recorded history. Without urgent action on this learning crisis, we could face a generational catastrophe.
Over the past two years, children in Laos have missed out on countless hours of learning, which is setting back decades of progress in education. With inaction, today’s children will lack the skills needed for further learning and to thrive in Lao society, and for a skilled workforce that Lao PDR needs to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status.
While the learning crisis is a global challenge, it is not an impossible one. We know the solutions to prevent a generational catastrophe:
Ensure parents understand the value of education and empower them to support their children’s learning and development, just like May’s mother did;
Ensure all children return to school and are supported to catch-up on lost learning so that they can master foundational learning and numeracy skills and gain 21st century skills;
Invest in teachers and promote opportunities for professional development and access to the adequate tools;
Accelerate the digital transformation to promote inclusion, equality and quality education for all children;
Increase and sustain investments in quality education including tackling the sources of inequality that leave the most disadvantaged children further behind.
The Lao PDR Government is addressing these challenges head on, as outlined in the National Commitment of Action prepared by the country for the United Nations Transforming Education Summit that took yesterday 19 September in New York. The Summit aims to mobilize action, ambition, solidarity and solutions to transform education between now and 2030.
Lao PDR’s commitment, which was drafted following extensive consultations led by the Ministry of Education and Sports with other line ministries, the National Assembly, development partners, teachers and students, focuses on three action tracks:
- Post COVID-19 learning recovery with an emphasis on keeping schools open and promote a healthy, equitable and safe environment for all learners, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds;
- Innovation in education through digital transformation in schools, upskilling of teachers in digital pedagogies, expanding age-appropriate and safe digital learning for all learners, strengthening existing digital platforms like the MoES Khang Panya Lao (ຄັງປັນຍາລາວ), in line with the National Digital Economy Development Plan;
- Adequate and sustainable public financing of education to meet the target of 18 percent education share in the national budget.
The Government of Lao PDR’s statement of commitment to education is truly transformative in that it turns challenges into opportunities for building a better, more resilient education system.
As the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine a modern education that delivers the knowledge, skills and outlooks needed for children and young people to excel in today’s world and contribute to sustainable, inclusive, healthy and peaceful futures.
We can achieve this by working together to mobilize greater political ambition, commitment, and action to reverse the slide and accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education.
Pia Rebello Britto is UNICEF’s Representative for Lao PDR