How Unesco are plugging the global gap in education

Photos Paddy Dowling/EAA
Photos Paddy Dowling/EAA

At the height of the Covid-19 crisis 1.6 billion children from around the world were sent home and the school gates were closed. But this figure excludes the 258 million children who were already out of school with no access to education – 59 million at primary level, according to Unesco’s Institute for Statistics.

The effects of school closure on child safety, wellbeing and learning are well documented. This also has long-term consequences for economies and societies resulting in a perpetual cycle of multi-dimensional poverty. A survey conducted by Unesco in 2017 discovered that 56 per cent (617 million) of children in classrooms around the world are not achieving minimum proficiency levels.

“Inequality, poor health, child labour, early and forced marriage are just some of the long-term outcomes. And those nations with significant numbers of out of school children face the very real prospect of lost generations,” says Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at Unesco.

A global education coalition launched by Unesco seeks to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth during this period of sudden and unprecedented educational disruption.

“This is a new kind of partnership with civil society, non-profits, philanthropists, the private sector and media networks,” Giannini explains. “This is not a one-size solution for all. We have to address this as a global challenge and determine how we can support governments, teachers, parents and communities to assure continuity of learning.”

Josephine, 14, is an orphan who now lives with her aunt. She was enrolled into school in 2017 but is forced to travel 4km to get there (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Josephine, 14, is an orphan who now lives with her aunt. She was enrolled into school in 2017 but is forced to travel 4km to get there (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Social distancing measures present additional challenges for already-crowded classrooms in Uganda (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Social distancing measures present additional challenges for already-crowded classrooms in Uganda (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Moza, eight, has been caring for her mother in Mosul and started school two years late (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Moza, eight, has been caring for her mother in Mosul and started school two years late (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Chacha, 12, has never set foot in a classroom and is one of a reported 1.89 million children in Tanzania who remain out of school (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Chacha, 12, has never set foot in a classroom and is one of a reported 1.89 million children in Tanzania who remain out of school (Paddy Dowling/EAA)

Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi from Education Above All Foundation, an organisation part of the coalition, explains: “The negative impact of Covid-19 is devastating for those who were not in school to begin with. It is essential to keep our focus on their education, because more fortunate children will benefit alongside them if we do. We must address basics as we try to rise above the pandemic.

“It is not just about the pressure of the immediate emergency. Education is key to recovering from this crisis, and for building education systems with more resistance to shocks [and] a more sustainable future.”

Furaha, six, attends Buremba Primary School in Uganda but has to take a three-hour walk just to get there (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Furaha, six, attends Buremba Primary School in Uganda but has to take a three-hour walk just to get there (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Children peer into a class at Bidibidi Refugee settlement in northern Uganda (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Children peer into a class at Bidibidi Refugee settlement in northern Uganda (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Ikiriza has to fund his own education by working weekends at just five years old (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Ikiriza has to fund his own education by working weekends at just five years old (Paddy Dowling/EAA)

The pandemic has forced many to turn to distance education, but this is not without its own obstacles. Connectivity remains the greatest challenge. Today 47 per cent of primary and secondary students globally do not have internet access, 89 per cent in Africa and 14 per cent across Europe.

Historically, those countries without connectivity have provided learning through television and radio, proven to be good alternatives in a context where online learning is not possible.

Alex, 13: ‘I can no longer wash my clothes any more as they will fall apart’ (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Alex, 13: ‘I can no longer wash my clothes any more as they will fall apart’ (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Ali, nine, a Syrian refugee arrived in Lebanon in 2011 (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Ali, nine, a Syrian refugee arrived in Lebanon in 2011 (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Mucunguzi Owen’s parents face extreme pressures to contribute ‘informal fees’ to their children’s education (Paddy Dowling/EAA)
Mucunguzi Owen’s parents face extreme pressures to contribute ‘informal fees’ to their children’s education (Paddy Dowling/EAA)

The short-term impact of this global emergency will become apparent when schools around the world reopen their gates. In the longer term, hope remains that the most marginalised children, whose enrolment in education hangs by a thread, do not get cast back into the shadows of society, destined to a life working not learning.

You can find out more about the Unesco Global Coalition here

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