Education recovery after COVID-19: Better, stronger & collaborative

By Andreas Schleicher- Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Jaime Saavedra – Global Director Education, The World Bank Group
Robert Jenkins- Global Director, Education and Adolescent Development, UNICEF
Stefania Giannini- Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO

Key points:

– COVID-19 school closures have had devastating impacts on many children’s cognitive, social and emotional well-being as well as impacting teachers.
– The data collected from 32 countries showed that there was significant innovation and new approaches to learning but more must be done now to capitalise on that.
– Education is not just building back better but building forward differently with the power of global collaboration.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, so do the risks we face. The Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped at national borders, and it has affected people regardless of nationality, gender or level of education or income. But that has not been true for its consequences, which have hit the most vulnerable hardest, whether that is individuals or countries. And, together with high inflation, disrupted supply chains, and military conflicts, the pandemic is dangerously diminishing governments’, families’ and donors’ capacity to support education.

Children have been the least vulnerable to COVID-19 but no group has been harder hit by public policy responses to contain this virus. Emerging evidence shows how long schools closures have had devastating effects on many children’s cognitive, social and emotional well-being.  

Out of 32 OECD and partner countries that took part in the latest survey conducted by the OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, three – Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico – experienced primary school closures of over a whole year. Besides the sheer cognitive and socio-emotional loss to each child of missing so much time to learn and interact with teachers and friends, lost learning itself generates long-term consequences for each person and society as a whole: poorer job opportunities and lower income for individuals, and lower productivity for the economy. Brazil is expected to lose over USD 8 trillion in national income over the working life of the students affected; Mexico, USD 5.2 trillion and  Costa Rica, nearly USD 200 billion.

Importantly, the data from the OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF & World Bank survey show no relationship between the extent of school closures and COVID-19 infection rates across countries. This shows that school closures were not inevitable but, rather, a policy choice, often framed by a lack of institutional capacity to reconcile educational provision with health and safety. As a rule, well-functioning school systems with high PISA scores typically saw shorter school closures than those with poor PISA performance. This has further amplified the educational gap across countries.

The unequal effects of COVID-19 manifested within countries as well: Children from the wealthiest backgrounds could generally find their way around closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities, supported by their parents. When schools shut down, they had more means to learn independently while students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply remained out of school.

The pandemic showed the world could quickly deploy resources to secure our immediate future: Within a year, a vaccine was developed; health services mobilised, and trillions of dollars invested in keeping economies going. Our long-term prospects, however, are not as rosy: We must work harder to prepare our schools today for our societies and economies of tomorrow.

One of the most striking findings from this latest OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF & World Bank survey is how little we actually know: During the tensest moments of the pandemic, we received daily tallies of COVID-19 infections but most OECD countries participating in the survey lost sight of how many students stopped learning when schools shut down. They also have scant numbers on students who haven’t turned up since classes started up again. Only 11 countries out of 32 reported national data on primary-grade student absences when schools were fully open during the pandemic: 8 of these, notably, saw increases in absenteeism. It is even harder to keep tabs on teacher absenteeism: just 9 countries were able to track absenteeism among their primary-grade teachers – this, at a time when it is a challenge to hang on to good teachers. Lastly, many countries suspended standardised testing programmes, one of the most powerful tools for securing equity, fairness and meritocracy in education. Some countries will not even resume high-school tests in the coming school year.

Countries are now paying close attention to the impacts of the pandemic. At the primary level, 17 countries are studying the impact of school closures on learning outcomes at either national or sub-national levels. Sixteen countries are looking at the effectiveness of distance learning during school closures and 12 at the relationships between parents and students during that period (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of countries that have undertaken studies to evaluate the effects of the pandemic in 2021 and/or 2022, by type of studies (Primary education)

One of the most encouraging findings from the survey is that many countries are continuing to provide additional support to primary-grade students affected by the pandemic. Beginning in the school year 2020/21, these support programmes recognise that the road to recovery will be long. Recovery requires sustained individual support . This comes in the form of remedial education and mental health programmes. Twenty countries have put these in place and an additional four (Colombia, Germany, the Slovak Republic and Sweden) are implementing remedial education and mental health programmes in the coming school year. While this is positive, little is known about the most effective kind of support for student and teachers. Out of the countries that responded to this question, just 7 had assessed the effectiveness of support programmes at the primary-grade level in a standardised way; an additional 7 have plans to do so.

When it comes to recovery policies for students from primary to secondary education, 10 countries reported using accelerated or catch-up programmes for students who had missed school. Eight countries made adjustments to the curriculum; 9 countries put early warning systems in place to identify students at risk of dropping out; 7 ran community mobilisation campaigns to bring students back to school and 4 countries offered cash transfers to increase enrolment among students from disadvantaged families (Figure 2). Looking forward to the coming school year, the most popular approaches to recovery are increased instruction time, including through summer schools and extended school days, and tutoring programmes with financial support provided. All of this, of course, affects teachers.

Figure 2: Number of countries that have implemented the following recovery policies for students due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the school year 2021/2022 (or 2022)

And what of the well-being of students and teachers? Twenty-one countries are looking at the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of primary-grade students and 17 at that of teachers. Beyond academic studies, countries are also trying to help students’ and teachers’ well-being: 20 countries offered psychological and mental health support to students and 10 used referral systems for students who need specialised services (Figure 2). Seventeen countries have begun to train teachers on how to support students’ mental health and well-being; 12 have recruited specific personnel such as psychologists and counsellors, and 12 have established psychological support for teachers (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Number of countries that have implemented the following recovery policies for teachers due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the school year 2021/2022 (or 2022)

There are other signs that education is not just building back better but building forward differently. The pandemic has woken schools up to a digital world that is fundamentally transforming learning. With the exception of pre-primary schools, virtually all countries who responded to the survey will continue to offer online platforms, whether as complementary support or as a valid alternative form of education delivery. Many countries are also maintaining or further developing digital tools, distance and hybrid learning; related pre-service and in-service training for teachers; and the enhanced use of digital exams. Even mobile phones, once hotly contested, at least, in primary schools, are here to stay in 15 countries while only 8 countries said they would not continue their use beyond the pandemic.

In half of the countries with data, the decision to digitalise education in the context of COVID-19 devolved to local levels, closer to the frontline. And many plans were backed up by additional resources. At the school level, 19 countries found additional resources for teachers’ professional development in the effective use of digital technologies; 18 countries made additional investments in the deployment of new devices or infrastructure directly targeting distance learning; 18 purchased new technologies for learning in classrooms for teachers and students; and 16 for students’ distance learning.

The crisis has revealed the enormous potential for innovation in education but more needs to be done to capitalise on it. Part of the problem lies in a weak and fragmented education innovation sector – just to compare, public health-research budgets in OECD countries are 17 times larger than education-research budgets.

It will also be important to create a more supportive environment for innovation in schools. Governments can help with promoting a collaborative culture where great ideas are refined and shared; they can also fund and offer incentives that raise the profile of, and demand for, what works. Governments can also ensure that national curricula and assessment policies are aligned with national needs and priorities.

To mobilise support for innovation, resilience, and change, education systems need to better communicate their needs and build support for change. Investing in capacity development and change-management skills will be critical; and it is vital that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technologically-based innovations but involving themselves in their design too.

Education systems need to better identify key agents of change, champion them, and find more effective ways of scaling and disseminating innovations. It is about finding better ways to recognise, reward and celebrate success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas. We need to build on lessons and experiences from the pandemic so that that innovation – hastily implemented and imperfect as it was – will not be lost when things return to ‘normal’ and that it inspires education to innovate more.

We can use the momentum of the pandemic to collaborate better internationally, mutualise open online educational resources and digital learning platforms, and encourage technology companies to join this effort. We can rapidly enhance digital learning opportunities for teachers and encourage teacher collaboration beyond borders. Most importantly, we can reshape curricula and learning environments to meet the challenges of future societies and build greater resilience to future disruptions.

If there is one thing this pandemic has illuminated, it is that no country will be able to go this alone. There is enormous global collaborative potential to fight the pandemic in every sector of public policy and the international education community is making a start. Over the last two years, three Global Education Meetings were organised and a new global co-operation mechanism is now in place. The Global Education Coalition mobilises more than 200 organisations to advance education. This is a foundation on which the future can be built. And it shows that it is within our means to provide a future for millions of learners who may not otherwise have one.

Read more:

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff