By Heewoon Bae and Manon Costinot
OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
– The OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have surveyed 142 countries on their education responses to the COVID pandemic.
– School closures have tended to last longer in disadvantaged contexts, and getting students back to school in these contexts will also be more difficult.
– Maintaining sufficient education funding will be key to supporting all students’ safe return to school and help drive countries’ overall recovery from the crisis.
As part of a co-ordinated global response to COVID-19, the OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have surveyed 142 countries on their national education responses to the pandemic. The third round of the survey sheds light on some of the equity concerns associated with school closures, and on country initiatives to tackle these issues.
Equity concerns associated with school closures
School closures have tended to last longer in less advantaged contexts
During the pandemic, countries around the world have resorted to school closures as an attempt to limit the number of COVID-19 cases. On average, countries participating in the survey reported a loss of 79 in-person instruction days in 2020 (across pre-primary, primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary levels). Although remote learning can mean opportunities to explore new ways of teaching, there have been concerns about the learning losses associated with school closures.
This is particularly concerning knowing that school closures have lasted longer in less advantaged contexts. Lower-middle-income countries closed schools from pre-primary to upper secondary for an average of 115 days in 2020. This was over twice as many days as in high-income countries (53 days). Moreover, countries with lower learning outcomes were more likely to experience a reduction of in-person instruction days. In other words, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities in learning outcomes.
Lower-middle-income countries closed schools for an average of 115 days in 2020. This was over twice as many days as in high-income countries (53 days).
Longer school closures in less advantaged countries may reflect lower capacities of health services to deal with the pandemic. But they may also partly stem from a lack of resources to ensure a safe return to school. In fact, 10 out of 11 low-income countries reported insufficient resources like masks, soap, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities for students and teachers.
Getting students back to school is harder in less advantaged countries
Inequalities may continue to increase both between and within countries even after schools reopen due to differences in how many students return to school.
High-income countries were most likely to report that all students attended school in-person after closures ended from primary to upper secondary. For instance, while 48% of high-income countries reported that all upper-secondary students went back to school in-person after their reopening, only 19% of lower-middle-income countries reported so.
High-income countries were most likely to report that all students attended school in-person after closures
This is worrisome given that less advantaged countries tended to have higher shares of children who were out of school even before the COVID crisis. Therefore, there is a risk that more students in these countries will drop out of school entirely after school closures, whilst in more advantaged countries they may attend remotely even if not in person.
Strategies for reopening schools
Outreach measures have improved, but students at risk could benefit from more support
In May 2020, less than 40% of countries reported having outreach measures to support children at risk of dropout as part of their preparations to reopen schools. A year later, however, most countries were implementing at least one outreach or support measure to help vulnerable students, such as disabled students or refugees, to return to school.
Adjustments to WASH services were particularly common in low- and middle-income countries. For example, over 60% of these countries reported that WASH facilities had been modified for refugee students, who may rely on schools in camps or settlements where there had previously been limited access to handwashing and sanitation services. However, only around 40% of all countries reported using school-based mechanisms to track students not returning to school for any particular vulnerable group, although they can be useful in tackling student dropout. Furthermore, these measures were only frequent amongst upper-middle-income countries.
In addition, few countries at all income levels reported the use of more costly measures like financial incentives or waived fees (at any level from pre-primary to upper secondary) although evidence suggests that these can be successful in supporting access to education. Given the differences in proportions of students returning to school noted above, there may be an exacerbation of educational inequalities.
More assessments are needed to monitor learning losses and identify who might need extra help
The upheaval caused by COVID-19 has led to widespread concerns about the extent to which children’s learning has been disrupted and whether this is exacerbating educational inequalities. Standardised assessments can be one way to measure learning losses during school closures and compare outcomes between different groups. However, only around one-third of countries declared that they had assessed students in a standardised way to measure learning losses at either primary or lower secondary levels in 2020. Moreover, 40% of countries stated that they had no plans to conduct any such assessment and more than half of countries (53%) were low-income.
Meanwhile, less than 60% of countries relied on formative assessments by teachers, though this ranged from 69% of high-income countries to only 44% of low-income countries.
Many factors will make it more challenging than usual to design and implement assessments. Not only is it difficult to organise the logistics of carrying out assessments, we can also question what assessments should contain and how they could try to capture the impact of COVID-19 on students beyond the curriculum. Furthermore, careful consideration will be needed to ensure that assessments do not become an extra burden on teachers or students in times that are already filled with uncertainty and stress.
It is essential that countries invest in assessing the magnitude of learning losses (or progress) using assessments
Nevertheless, the design of effective policies and remedial programmes to mitigate learning losses will depend on an understanding of what learning has taken place, by whom, and in what conditions. It is therefore essential that countries invest in assessing the magnitude of learning losses (or progress) using assessments, whether standardised or formative.
Issues of funding
Implementing appropriate outreach strategies or assessments of learning losses related to the pandemic will require extra resources. In 2020, most countries either increased their education budget or kept it stable in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and no low-income country reported a decrease in their education budgets. Furthermore, in 2021, over 60% of countries in all income groups expected to raise their budgets across all education levels.
More advantaged countries were more likely to receive additional allocations from their governments, whilst low-income countries (67%) often utilised development assistance from external donors to cover COVID-related costs in education. However, there is a risk that education aid may decline as donor countries focus on funding domestic measures to deal with COVID.
Education will play an immensely important role in the ability of countries to recover from the crisis, so it must remain a priority
As we move forward, maintaining sufficient funding will be key in supporting students’ safe return to school, in identifying educational priorities, and in making sure that no one gets left behind when we return to ‘normality’. Education will play an immensely important role in the ability of countries to recover from the crisis, so it must remain a priority – unlike what happened after the financial crisis in 2008, when education budgets also initially increased, only to be cut drastically a few years later in many countries.
- Full report | Lessons on Education Recovery: Findings from a Survey of Ministries of Education amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Press release | 1 in 3 countries are not taking action to help students catch up on their learning post-COVID-19 school closures
- Blog | The state of education one year into COVID
- Blog | Repeating the school year not the answer to COVID learning losses: Andreas Schleicher
- The State of Education One Year into the COVID Pandemic
- Planning for School Reopening and Recovery After COVID-19
- COVID-19: How are Countries Preparing to Mitigate the Learning Loss as Schools Reopen?: Trends and Emerging Good Practices to Support the Most Vulnerable Children
- Lessons for education during the coronavirus crisis
- The OECD coronavirus (COVID-19) policy hub
Photo: Shutterstock/Drazen Zigic