Global education crisis will outlast the pandemic

Schools remain shut in at least 17 countries, affecting nearly 115 million children

More than 100m students globally are not going back to education due to the pandemic

More than 100m students globally are not going back to education due to the pandemic

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In Moroto High School, in impoverished northeastern Uganda, more than a fifth of students were on Irish Aid bursaries when I visited last year. Their school fees were covered, along with pocket money and other necessities. Headteacher Fr John Bosco Kutegana called the programme “magical”. “Especially for girls, we’re witnessing a lot of changes,” he said.

I met two enthusiastic bursary recipients. Gladys Chenangay (17) told me she had grown up seeing neighbours debilitated by malaria and unable to find medical help. “I want to be a doctor, I want to help people in my village,” she said.

Aaron Osire Lotee (18) came from Nakapiripirit District, where government statistics say more than 70 per cent of people are illiterate and one in eight primary school-age children did not attend school, even before the pandemic. He had already spent more than a year out of education too, due to poverty, before he was chosen for the bursary.

The world is facing what the World Bank has called 'the worst crisis to education and learning in a century'

Lotee’s relatives were counting on him to do well. “My mother is very happy because she’s seeing success and she knows I’m the one to change our family,” he told me. “Even my neighbours are very happy. God has opened my way.”

I interviewed the students while reporting a planned article for this newspaper, which never ran because of what happened shortly afterwards, when the pandemic forced lockdowns across the world.

Now, 19 months on, a new school year has started, but more than 100 million students globally are not going back to education. The world is facing what the World Bank has called “the worst crisis to education and learning in a century”.

Some 1.5 billion students were out of school or university last April, according to UN figures. Save the Children just released a new report saying about 16 million children might never return at all.

In much of the world, education is a form of hope; the greatest chance a young person has to improve their life.

Yet today, in Uganda, schools remain largely closed, with the president at one point saying he was going to wait until enough schoolchildren were vaccinated to reopen – a tall order in a country where fewer than 1.5 million doses of vaccine had been administered by the start of this month, among a population of about 44 million.

There are at least 16 other countries where schools remain shut nationwide, and there are partial closures elsewhere. Nearly 115 million children are affected.

Five countries, including the Philippines, Bangladesh and Venezuela, had not allowed any in-person classes for school students since the pandemic began, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) said at the end of August.

Risks to children out of school include child marriage or pregnancy for girls; child labour, as young people are enlisted into providing for their families; and increased malnutrition among those who lose access to school meals.

Even when education restarts, many parents – who used up savings trying to provide for their families during lockdowns, or lost business as a result of the pandemic – may not be able to cover the associated costs.

The longer schools remain shut, the greater the divide between rich and poor, as many children have no access to the internet, radios or televisions, electricity, and books or other learning resources. Last year, Unicef said a third of the world’s schoolchildren could not access remote learning.

In February, Amnesty International said the pandemic exposed how South Africa’s education system continues to be shaped by the legacy of apartheid, exacerbating inequalities in a country where only 10 per cent of households have an internet connection and thousands of schools have no running water.

In Moroto, northeastern Uganda, I asked headteacher Kutegana what he knew about Ireland. 'You were very poor,' he said. 'But education transformed your society'

“A child’s experience of education in South Africa is still dependent on where they are born, how wealthy they are and the colour of their skin,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Amnesty International’s South Africa executive director.

In March, the World Bank predicted that the loss of learning and subsequent productivity, in Latin American and the Caribbean, could translate as a decline in earnings of $1.7 trillion (€1.44 trillion) for the region.

“This is the worst educational crisis ever seen . . . and we are worried that there could be serious and lasting consequences for a whole generation, especially for the most vulnerable sectors,” said Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, the World Bank’s vice-president for the region.

Growing inequalities extend into third-level education. A survey carried out last year by the International Association of Universities found that fewer than 30 per cent of African higher-education institutions were able to move classes online, compared with 60 per cent in Asia and the Pacific and 85 per cent in Europe. Nearly a quarter of African institutions said classes had been cancelled completely, without attempting to develop other ways to deliver teaching.

In Moroto, northeastern Uganda, I asked headteacher Kutegana what he knew about Ireland. “You were very poor,” he said. “But education transformed your society.”

While this crisis continues, many other societies will not get that chance.

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