We have failed to support disadvantaged learners during coronavirus, and now millions of children’s futures are at risk

In Colombia, Maria, 8 years-old, from Venezuela, works on maths problems: Jenn Gardella/Save the Children
In Colombia, Maria, 8 years-old, from Venezuela, works on maths problems: Jenn Gardella/Save the Children

There have long been many trends which exacerbate inequalities in our world, including climate change, conflict, and technological disruption. Covid-19 is a new threat, which will have ramifications for years or decades to come.

Education for all is one way of combatting inequality. Yet almost 260m children and young people around the world were already permanently excluded from school before the pandemic. Gender, disability, migration status and mother tongue are just some of the factors which drive education exclusion. Poverty is the biggest culprit, but it will take much more than an injection of funding to lift the barriers to education.

Unesco’s new Global Education Monitoring Report warns that the time for talking is over. We must act now, as global efforts towards inclusion in education have fallen by the wayside in the last few months. The report found that 40 per cent of low and lower-middle income countries have failed to support disadvantaged learners during the Covid-19 crisis, putting at risk the future of millions of children.

Gender is a barrier for a multitude of reasons: lack of adequate sanitation facilities in schools means some 335m girls are unlikely to go to school when they’re menstruating. Two countries in Africa actively ban pregnant girls from school. Incredibly, 117 countries still allow child marriage. In past health crises, like the Ebola crisis, the education of poor girls was disproportionately impacted. Many never returned to school, either because of child marriage, resulting in early pregnancy, or the obligation to support family income. We must remember that few girls choose marriage over school; their lack of legal protections makes the choice for them.

Education systems tend to be inadequate when it comes to children with disabilities. Based on a study of 10 low and middle-income countries, children with disabilities were 19 per cent less likely to achieve basic reading skills than others. Some disabled children do not attend mainstream schools because their parents fear their presence will disturb others’ learning. Some 15 per cent of parents in Germany, and 59 per cent in Hong Kong expressed this view. Not all the barriers to quality education are obvious to policymakers.

And it’s not all about access to education. Children who attend school are often taught ineffectively. Many children are taught in a language they don’t understand: 10-year-olds in middle and high-income countries who were taught in a language other than their mother tongue typically scored 34 per cent below native speakers in reading tests.

Lack of teacher training is another problem. Teachers are not being prepared to meet students’ special needs – a quarter of teachers across 48 countries want more training in this area, according to the report.

Many countries have signed up to international treaties committing them to inclusive education, yet our report, with all countries’ comparable laws and policies on inclusive education, shows that fewer than 10 per cent of all countries have an education law that is inclusive of all learners.

In 2020 no one should be denied an education because they’re female, because they’re from an ethnic or religious minority, because they’re a migrant or a refugee, because of their sexual orientation or because they have a disability. People around the world are collectively rejecting this type of discrimination.

Inclusive education not only helps foster the kind of resilient and cohesive societies we all want to live in; there are also powerful economic arguments which should convince us to push for education for all. World poverty could be cut in half if all adults completed secondary education. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with a golden opportunity to reflect on the kind of world we want. Let’s not squander that opportunity, let’s use it to re-imagine schools as they re-open everywhere.

Stefania Giannini is assistant director-general for education at Unesco, the United Nations’ leading education agency

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