This blog was written by Anja Nielsen, Senior Policy Adviser at UNICEF UK, the National Committee for UNICEF in the United Kingdom.
As of 31August 2020, UNESCO estimates that more than 700 million learners remain affected by school closures due to Coronavirus. While the health and safety of communities is rightly a top priority for national leaders, this has had a profound impact on children’s access to education. In the UK alone, millions of children and young people were asked to learn online during school closures, yet in 2018, 700,000 11 to 18-year-olds had no computer or tablet-based internet access at home. The challenge is clear.
Educators, parents, organisations and even celebrities around the world have put in a tremendous effort to support the continuation of children’s education. The efforts of these actors cannot be overstated or overvalued. They are delivering a right and a future for children everywhere.
However, the Coronavirus pandemic teaches us all an important lesson. In times of crisis, education is often the first thing to go. While much attention has been given to this, including at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum, the pandemic illustrates how other factors affect the continuity of education. The prevalence of disease outbreaks, natural disasters and impacts of climate change should cause us to question the stability, preparedness and resilience of education systems. This is true not only in areas of conflict, but in all communities around the world.
As we move forward through the pandemic and assess the response, we must ask ourselves what more could have been done in advance of the crisis? What systems should have been in place to ease our response? What should we have known and done to help continue education during school closures? The answers to these questions will be critical to undertaking systems strengthening in the future.
The answers, however, are only as useful as the extent to which they are used. Ignoring the learning from the global pandemic could condemn millions – or indeed billions – of children to a similar gap in education in the future. We know that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and both the long- and short-term impacts of climate change are causing children to be on the move. Can we incorporate the lessons learned through this pandemic to ensure education isn’t the first to go when children are uprooted?
The right to education is not only about access, it’s about developing children’s personalities, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential. It’s not about bums on seats, as we say, but teaching children the skills (be they academic, technical, or socio-emotional) to build their own, better futures.
In order to do so, all education stakeholders, including donors like the UK’s new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), must use the learning from this crisis to build back stronger. The FCDO and partners should work together to understand the needs of communities, what worked and what didn’t in the response, and what should have been in place before the crisis to minimise educational disruption. With many key moments happening in 2021, including the UK G7 presidency and COP26, next year presents an ideal opportunity to highlight these lessons and use the UK’s global leadership to put continuity of education for all children, including those affected by a range of crises, on the agenda. Doing so will ensure the UK Government can realise its manifesto commitment of supporting 12 years of quality education for every girl.
We have asked of children something truly significant: to forgo their traditional education and social engagements to protect themselves and their communities. And they are not only appeasing our ask, but actively contributing to the response. They are learning in new and innovative ways, engaging through new social methods, and using their voices to tell the stories that must be heard. We owe them nothing short of a future where we have education systems prepared to withstand the shocks we know will come.