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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.