Repeating the school year not the answer to COVID learning losses: Andreas Schleicher

School children wearing face masks in school corridor running towards the camera

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Repeating school could amplify existing social disparities without making up for learning losses
– Resources should be invested in targeted measures to help struggling students
– Countries need to learn the lessons of the pandemic to make education systems more resilient

Data from the OECD’s third Special Survey on education during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic highlight the extensiveness of school closures during the crisis. By 16 March 2020 about half of the 33 countries with comparable data had fully closed at least some primary and secondary schools. On average across countries with comparable data, pre-primary schools were fully closed for an average of 42 days in 2020, while primary schools closed for 54 days, lower secondary for 63 days and upper secondary schools for 67 days.

Of course, some students were able to find their way around closed school doors, through alternative learning opportunities, well supported by their parents and teachers. However, many remained shut out when their school shut down, particularly those from the most marginalised groups, who did not have access to digital learning resources or lacked the support or motivation to learn on their own. The learning losses that follow from school closures could throw long shadows over the economic well-being of individuals and nations.

Chart showing how many days schools were fully closed in 2020 in countries participating in the OECD COVID survey

Why repeating school may not be the answer

Some have been quick to respond that students should simply be given the option of repeating the school year to make up for that. But the message to write off a school year is deeply troubling. OECD analyses of grade repetition suggest that it is far from certain that just repeating the school year will make up for the learning losses. Moreover, such policies typically amplify social disparities, with students from wealthier families being given far better options to make up for learning losses. Last but not least, it is a hugely expensive option, amounting to between 25 000 and 35 000 USD per student if one factors in the lost tax income due to delayed labour market entry.

OECD analyses of grade repetition suggest that it is far from certain that just repeating the school year will make up for the learning losses

These resources would be so much better invested into redoubling our efforts to help struggling students through this crisis. Fortunately, in many countries efforts in this direction are underway. The OECD’s Special Survey shows that 86% of countries with comparable data reported providing remedial measures to reduce learning gaps at the primary level, 75% did so at lower secondary and 73% at the upper secondary level of education. More than 60% of the countries introduced specific measures focused on disadvantaged students while about 40% targeted measures at immigrant, refugee, ethnic minority or indigenous groups. Importantly, more than half of the countries introduced measures specifically targeted at those at risk of repeating their grade or dropping out.

Chart showing outreach and support measures taken by countries for vulnerable students during the COVID crisis

With school closures and hybrid learning significantly reducing the number of in-person instruction hours available within the academic year, education systems have also adapted by allocating time for remedial classes within current schedules. Slightly less than half of the countries providing remedial measures to address learning gaps provided additional class time outside of normal school hours. For example, in France, the initiative “Devoirs Faits”, which supports students with completing their homework through dedicated time at school, was strengthened in September 2020 to support students with educational challenges during the pandemic. Nine countries scheduled extra remedial time during the school holidays and some schools in Germany, Japan and the Netherlands organised such measures during weekends. In other countries, such as Slovenia and Switzerland, such remedial measures were organised during planned school time.

Learning from the lessons of the pandemic

Of course, the COVID pandemic may necessitate further school closures. Where those are inevitable, countries need to mitigate their impact for learners, families and educators, again with particular attention to those at risk of grade repetition and to those in the most marginalised groups. Where school capacity is limited because of social distancing, it is important to prioritise young children and students from disadvantaged backgrounds for in-person learning, reflecting that the social context of learning is so much more important for these groups, and digital alternatives are least effective for them.

More effort is also needed to ensure the reliability and predictability of services for students and parents and, in particular, that every student has a daily and dedicated contact, even when schools are closed. As the Special Survey shows, many countries have already put in place new channels to facilitate communication between students, families, teachers and school or local authorities.

None of this is easy, none of this can be done overnight, but it is worth every effort to reduce the shadows being cast on young people’s futures.

Local capacity will be key for a safe opening of schools. Success will depend on combining transparent and well-communicated criteria for service operability, with flexibility to implement them at the frontline. The latter will often include local decisions as to when to implement measures of social distancing, health, quarantine or the closures of classes or schools.

With reduced instruction time, it will remain essential to prioritise curriculum content to avoid overburdening teachers and students. When it comes to learning at school, priority should be given to the learning of new content over the rehearsal of material, to the preparation and review of material learned at distance, and to the motivation and development of effective learning strategies and social learning.

None of this is easy, none of this can be done overnight, but it is worth every effort to reduce the shadows being cast on young people’s futures.

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