Changing course in education
International Day of Education was celebrated on January 24.

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” — Albert Einstein

According to the UN, the novel coronavirus pandemic has wiped out 20 years of education gains. Alarmingly, the UN adds that an additional 101 million or 9 per cent of children in grades 1 through 8 fell below minimum reading proficiency levels in 2020.

Statistics from the UN paints a damning picture: 258 million children and youth still do not attend school; 617 million children and adolescents cannot read and do basic maths; less than 40 per cent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school; and some four million children and youth refugees are out of school. Our children's right to an education is being violated and this is unacceptable.

It appears that a growing number of countries will not be able to meet the targets of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 4, which is aimed at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. According to the UN progress report regarding SDG 4, the impact of the pandemic on schooling is a “generational catastrophe”.

Before the pandemic, progress was already slow and insufficient to achieve the education targets. School closures caused by the pandemic have had devastating consequences for children's learning and well-being. Hundreds of millions of children and young people are falling behind in their learning, which will have long-term impacts. Two-thirds of students worldwide are still affected by full or partial school closures. The most vulnerable children and those unable to access remote learning are at increased risk of never returning to school and of being forced into child marriage or child labour.

Data from before the pandemic for 76 mostly low- and middle-income countries and territories covering the period 2012–2020 indicate that seven in 10 children who are three and four years of age are on track developmentally, with no significant differences between the sexes. However, many young children are unable to access early childhood education because of the pandemic and so are now entirely reliant on their caregivers for nurturing care. Unsafe conditions, negative interactions with caregivers, and a lack of educational opportunities during the early years can lead to irreversible outcomes, affecting children's potential for the remainder of their lives.

Disparities in access to education and learning outcomes persist across a range of education indicators. For example, there were still only 92 literate women and girls 15 years of age or older for every 100 literate boys and men of the same age range in 2019. Almost half of countries and territories with recent data did not achieve gender parity in primary completion, and only a handful of countries and territories demonstrated parity in tertiary enrolment ratios.

Disparities by urban/rural geographical location and household wealth are typically more extreme, with one-third and one-sixth of countries and territories achieving parity in primary completion, respectively, and no countries or territories with recent data achieving parity in tertiary attendance.

The pandemic is expected to lead to a reversal in recent progress towards equity. Sadly, with the shift towards remote learning, those from the poorest households and other vulnerable groups are less equipped to participate and more likely to drop out permanently or for extended periods. Undoubtedly, the nation's children have been severely impacted by the closure of schools for approximately two years as a result of the pandemic.

International stakeholders such as UNESCO continue to coordinate efforts in tackling the global learning loss concerning our students. It is rather timely that on January 24 the international community celebrated the fourth International Day of Education under the theme 'Changing Course, Transforming Education'.

This year's International Day of Education will be a platform to showcase the most important transformations that have to be nurtured to realise everyone's fundamental right to education and build a more sustainable, inclusive, and peaceful future. It will generate debate around how to strengthen education as a public endeavour and common good, how to steer the digital transformation, support teachers, safeguard the planet, and unlock the potential in every person to contribute to the collective well-being and our shared home.

In Jamaica, the Ministry of Education and Youth has launched the Yard to Yard, Find the Child initiative, which will run until the end of March. The Education Ministry disclosed that 580 youth workers under the Housing, Opportunity, Production and Employment (HOPE) Programme, and 108 social workers will be engaged to complement school-based teams in 478 public institutions islandwide to go yard to yard to find students and to re-engage them in learning.

A recent World Bank study of Jamaica showed that the fiscal impact (over and above what we are currently spending) to support the health and safety requirements for opening our schools is going to be $2.4 to $3.9 billion, annually, for one to two years. This includes the cost of re-enrolment campaigns and outreach activities, providing targeted support for the most at-risk students, mitigating and preventing dropouts, and facilitating remedial education to minimise learning loss.

Since the physical closure of schools in Jamaica in March 2020, approximately 120,000 children, as reported by the Ministry of Education, have been disengaged from learning and schools have had little or no regular contact with these students.

A number of factors are responsible or have contributed to the disengagement of our students in this ongoing pandemic. Among the factors are poor or no Internet connectivity, especially in rural areas, as well as the lack of devices.

Many of the students who have given up on schools will never return to the classroom to continue their education and this is problematic. What will become of them, especially the boys?

The society should be concerned about the underperformance of our boys at all levels of the education system. The time to reimagine education is now. There is an urgent need for policymakers to do all within their powers to close the widening gap between children of the privileged and those of the working poor. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities within the education system. Unless we ensure an inclusive approach to education, many of the social ills in the society cannot be addressed.

The overwhelming issue of concern for most Jamaicans is crime and violence. We are in a crisis.

A new study by UNICEF Jamaica, in collaboration with the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), of 500 households underscores the severity of the impact of the pandemic on the health, education, and protection of children. The research discovered that the levels of engagement in distance learning during school closure/remote teaching varied by age group, with children in the pre/basic school age group having the lowest engagement (75 per cent), followed by high-school-aged students (83 per cent), and then primary/preparatory (90 per cent).

As the world continues to journey through the pandemic we can all be certain that how we did things pre pandemic must be revisited for the future. Education is a human right, a public good, and a public responsibility. Policymakers can no longer turn a blind eye to the elitist education system. The narrative about nation-building must include a revolution of the education system, as well as the legislation to support it.

The transformation of which we all speak and perhaps dream about must be placed on the path to recovering stronger for all. Governments must invest more funding in education, and as taxpayers we must demand better accountability from all the stakeholders involved.

One accountability framework which needs to be turned on its head is that of school boards. The current situation regarding school board appointments is rather pathetic and scandalous. We must set standards and ensure that they are followed.

Why do we tolerate such ineptitude? Are we really concerned about our children? It is not sustainable to only have a few schools of choice, while the vast majority of our schools are underperforming. Principals must be held accountable; however, not many of us are hopeful in this regard.

While the society continues to bemoan the social ills, we must be mindful that the situation will only improve when we fix our ailing education system. The present injustices we face as a society and indeed as a global community can only be rectified by the use of education as a tool of transformation.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and/or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or waykam@yahoo.com.

Wayne Campbell

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