How the social outcomes of education may help during coronavirus lockdowns

Girl sits with head in hands of empty room alone

By Simon Normandeau

Statistician, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Equity has been strongly hit by coronavirus (COVID-19). Already not a given prior to the outbreak, the current crisis is amplifying the gaps. The virus itself is not treating people equally; it is killing the elderly and those who already have other health problems while it is mostly sparing the fittest. Beyond the physical effects of the virus, the political decisions associated with the outbreak are exacerbating socio-economic inequalities.

Lockdowns are a challenge for all of us, but our individual material and financial conditions likely have a big impact on how well we make it through. While the economic benefits of education have been demonstrated in a number of areas, higher educational attainment is also positively associated with a variety of social outcomes that are important during the COVID-19 outbreak and the confinement period.

Our latest Education Indicators in Focus brief investigates the relationship between educational attainment and social issues such as mental health, domestic violence and social connectedness. There is an array of outcomes and unexpected effects of lockdowns we have not yet grasped, but mental health and domestic violence have already been identified as concerns during the outbreak.

While it is difficult to establish a direct causal relation between education and these outcomes, data collected prior to the outbreak show that those who did not complete an upper secondary education reported higher levels of depression. Research also show that victims and perpetrators of domestic violence are over-represented among the low-educated adults. As for social connections, the World Health Organization recommends staying in contact with family and friends, but this is a practice that increases with educational attainment.

All these elements point toward an uneven lockdown and a much easier situation for those who had the chance to get a good education and make a good living. People with higher incomes can afford larger living spaces and are less likely cramped in small spaces. They are also more likely to have the technology that brings people together. In contrast, people with low educational attainment are often in a more precarious job and they generally have lower earnings. This implies a higher risk of being unemployed, which in turn increases the likelihood to suffer from anxiety or depression.

Society depends on a large share of jobs associated with low educational attainment. But even if they are seen as essential, these workers are also the most vulnerable to inequities.

Adults with lower educational attainment can also be disadvantaged when it comes to their employment. Either the nature of their job is considered essential and exposes them to the virus (such as cashiers, those in the delivery services, taxi drivers) or they are not able to do their job from home (such as hairdressers, construction workers, sales representatives) and are temporarily unemployed. In contrast, tertiary-educated adults are more likely to be able to perform their work at distance and receive their full income (such as professors, government agents, researchers). Our society currently depends on a large share of jobs associated with low educational attainment. Unfortunately, even if society views these jobs as essential, these workers are also the most vulnerable to inequities.

Governments are aware of such inequalities and some programmes have been developed to support and help people at risk. For example, in France additional financial resources have been devoted to helping victims of domestic violence. However, the temporary measures adopted during lockdowns are not enough. The damage associated with the lockdown is likely to follow people in the long run. Children exposed to domestic violence are likely to develop self-esteem and schooling difficulties.

If mental health problems and domestic violence are more acute among the population with a low educational attainment, governments should double their efforts to offer these children all the tools and support they need to emerge from their difficult situation. We know education is an important social elevator, and denying the support these children need will only continue the cycle of disadvantage. In contrast, reaching out to those most in need may help future generations to be better equipped for any adversities they may eventually face.

The social outcomes of education are often overlooked in favour of more direct economic and labour outcomes. However, social outcomes of education can take you a long way. They are now more important than ever.

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