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“A global education crisis”

Interview with Professor Maria Böhmer, President of the Germany Commission for UNESCO, regarding the impact of coronavirus on the education sector and why there is a North-South divide here.

Maria Böhmer, President german Commission for UNESCO
Professor Maria Böhmer has been President of the German Commission for UNESCO since 8 June 2018.

The Corona pandemic appears to be slowly subsiding. But it has, it is said, triggered the biggest crisis in education since the Second World War. Where was and is this most evident?

At the peak of the pandemic, almost 1.6 billion people around the world had no access to education. We are therefore dealing with a global phenomenon that will have long-term consequences. Some countries were more affected than others, though one trend is becoming apparent: those who found it hard to establish a foothold in the education system even before the crisis are still the ones most affected by the negative effects today.

Is it really a global problem, evenly distributed around the world - or are some world regions particularly affected?

We are seeing a North-South divide. In almost all high-income countries, lessons were continued in one form or another at the start of the pandemic; the same is true for less than half of all countries with low incomes. In the Global South, the crisis is still more evident today because the structural deficits in the education system were already more pronounced even before the pandemic. It lacks resources like well-trained teachers more than the Global North.

Does UNESCO have any information on how many hours of schooling have been missed since the start of the crisis?

In 2020, schools around the world were closed for an average of 79 days of lessons. However, there are also differences here too. With 53 days of closures, high-income countries were not impacted as much as less prosperous countries, where lessons were cancelled for up to 115 days. Even in mid-2021, hundreds of millions of learners worldwide were still affected.

Children on a schoolyard
In poorer countries, schools were closed much more frequently due to the pandemic than in wealthier countries.

In Germany, we quickly switched to digital teaching, more or less successfully. However, many children in developing countries still have no internet access. Does that mean they didn’t have any lessons at all?

Remote teaching was organised in a wide variety of ways around the world. This ranged from work sheets to take home through to sophisticated online platforms. Particularly in countries with very poor internet access, television and especially the radio played an important role. However, with these resources it was more difficult to track whether such teaching content was actually followed than with online learning options.

Do you know how students felt about school being cancelled? Normally, they “celebrate” when it's too hot for school, for example. Was it different during the height of the pandemic?

For many schoolchildren, this situation was a huge strain. They still had to tackle the curriculum but the underlying conditions had changed radically as a result of the pandemic. School closures, new approaches to teaching and a lack of social contact had a particularly big impact on the children who rely most on individual support and a shared classroom. So it was for good reason that the German National Schooling Conference pointed out at the time that remote lessons can replace neither the content nor the quality of face-to-face lessons.

Children in class with a teacher
School children need teacher support to learn successfully - distance learning cannot provide this.

The situation is said to have been particularly difficult for girls. What do we know about this?

Huge progress has been made in girls’ education around the world in recent decades. The coronavirus pandemic is threatening to set us back significantly here. UNESCO is concerned that shrinking education budgets will lead to fewer girls receiving education in future. According to its estimates, 11 million girls and young women may also have left school as a result of the pandemic. This is particularly true for poorer countries.

People are now talking about a “lost generation” growing up. Do you think this is an appropriate term?

If we don’t work hard to fight back, this will take its toll in the future. It is clear that the learning gap has not yet been made up. If we fail to close the gaps created by the pandemic, this could lead to huge losses in income in the coming years according to the World Bank’s estimates – particularly among the generation that was affected by school closures.

In your opinion, what needs to urgently happen to prevent the gap in education getting even bigger?

Despite all the challenges, many parents, children and young people have managed to cope well through the crisis. Therefore, the task is to focus particularly on those who have been most impacted by the circumstances and who have lost touch. This means: more contact with families, support with digitalisation, and individual support with learning.

What is the importance of education in the post-pandemic phase?

Because of the crisis, education budgets have also come under pressure. But I warn against cuts! We must not make savings in the wrong places. Education is not just one of a number of items. Education is a prerequisite for making sure our societies become crisis-proof. It was only thanks to quality education that coronavirus vaccines could be developed in record time. We will only find answers to climate change with fair education. We will only strengthen social cohesion with inclusive education.

What urgently needs to happen to make education systems stronger, also in view of future crises?

The crisis has revealed weaknesses that we already had in our sights some time ago. We need more teachers, and we have to prepare them better for the challenges of everyday life at school. However, we have also experienced a huge step forward in terms of digitalisation and we now need to steer this onto the right track so that everyone can profit from it and nobody is left behind. To achieve this, we need accessible infrastructure that both students and schools can access. We need to provide teachers with the expertise and time they need to translate their lessons for new teaching practices.

Two teachers at a primary school in Mozambique
Two teachers at a primary school in Mozambique

What role can development cooperation play here?

Development cooperation alone is not a panacea, but it can still play a huge role. Therefore, its budgets for education must not decrease. This puts a huge strain on education systems in poorer countries in particular, and we have to keep an eye on this. On a global level, Germany is one of the largest financiers of education. This is an important and fitting role, and one that our country should continue to play in the future.

Do you think we can still reach SDG 4 by 2030?

We are making progress, but it is much too slow. There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has set us back. Even before the health crisis, more than 250 million children and young people had no access to education. This number will continue to rise if we don’t act now. In addition, there is a new hunger crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, which also poses great challenges for many families and in some cases prevents them from sending their children to school. Reaching the goal has not become easier recently, but it is still possible.

The interview was conducted by Friederike Bauer.