This blog was written by Keith Lewin, Emeritus Professor of International Development and Education at the University of Sussex, and Chair of the UKFIET Trustees. It outlines ideas which are developed more fully in the latest edition of Prospects: ‘Contingent reflections on coronavirus and priorities for educational planning and development’, published 26 June 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted short-term education and development priorities. The tragic death toll and high rates of morbidity across many countries are an unprecedented setback and a calamity for those affected physically and mentally. The economic and social effects of lockdowns, loss of production and business confidence, and global recession will cast a long shadow over education systems. Despite the 435 million items that Google already indexes under “COVID-19 education”, many things remain unknown. No one has a clear idea of how the current pandemic will unravel over anything but the short term. The challenge is to strengthen the mechanisms that can separate evidence from opinion and to balance popularism with speaking truth to power— especially when political systems can find it difficult to distinguish fact from convenient fiction.

Ten propositions can be used to shape policy dialogue and whatever iteration of the Sustainable Development Goals is needed to ensure they remain fit for purpose.

Proposition 1: The basic arithmetic of organising and financing of mass education systems will remain structurally the same as it was before COVID-19. Mass provision of education will continue to be provided through schools that are publicly funded, especially for the poor and marginalised. The public good of extending learning to all will remain undiminished and will need to be closely coupled by reducing the inequalities that COVID-19 will exacerbate.

Proposition 2: The amount of grant aid from donors will plateau and may fall, as the appetite for aid to education comes under increasing pressure from new domestic priorities and economic recession. The domestic political economy of development assistance in donor countries will diminish willingness to give grant aid, accelerating existing trends. Investments in health care systems and global health will take precedence over access to education and learning. Tied aid will become more common as rich countries seek to rebuild their own employment and corporate revenues.

Proposition 3: LICs and LMICs will suffer more than OECD countries from reductions in domestic revenue, making educational financing more difficult. Domestic economic activity is being compromised by lockdowns, morbidity has a direct effect on productivity, falls in demand for exports are reducing taxable transactions, and income and tourist revenues are collapsing. The collection of personal income tax will fall as employment shrinks, VAT receipts will drop, and corporate taxes will follow the downward economic cycle. Remittances will drop dramatically, with a huge impact on LICs and LMICs that export labour. In most LICs and LMICs, savings will not be sufficient to buffer recession.

 Proposition 4: Education systems will reopen and will rebuild themselves in ways that largely replicates their existing form, with more attention to systemic risk. Assuming COVID-19 is mitigated and morbidity falls to levels similar to the aftermath of previous pandemics in five years’ time, existing structures of mass education systems will have adapted and will persist. The organisational forms, physical structures, working practices, and roles in social reproduction and economic development of education systems are deeply embedded. Evolution is more likely than revolution in system development. Planning will need to place more emphasis on resilience and more “just in case” measures to complement approaches that seek efficiencies through “just in time”.

Proposition 5: The global pandemic has illustrated the importance of global public goods like health and education. Almost all countries have had public health campaigns to manage COVID-19. These require skilled staff in public health systems that generate and validate health messages, as well as a literate and numerate population capable of understanding and acting on such messages. The crisis has highlighted how public institutions are at the heart of a response to the crisis that requires collective action and responsible sharing of the burden of disruption, the risks of infection, and the costs of treatment.

Proposition 6: Non-state providers have to develop business plans that factor in a new economics of private school operation. Private schools depending on fee-paying students will have to manage a significant loss in income as household income is squeezed. Austerity will have a disproportionate effect on middle- and lower-income families, where effective demand for fee-paying private schooling will fall. It may also be reflected in gendered preferences to enrol and other social exclusions of relatively powerless groups. New arrangements for social distancing in classrooms are likely to inflate costs.

Proposition 7: Children currently not attending school as a result of school closures by governments should not be confused with conventionally defined Out-of-School Children (OOSC). The causalities are unrelated, and the numbers affected are vastly different. A precipitate rush into distance education, artificial intelligence-driven internet schooling, or home schooling is both unrealistic and unwise until the temporary and permanent effects of COVID-19 can be distinguished from each other. It will be a mistake to adopt new pedagogies in a hurry with only opinion as a foundation for action.

Proposition 8: Teachers have to be seen as key workers, and schools as key institutions. Teachers have not been considered “key workers” in most countries, except to meet the need to keep some schools open for the children of other key personnel. As infection rates fall, schools will continue to play a central role in the ability of societies to reproduce themselves, transmit knowledge and skill across the generations, and encourage behaviour based on evidence rather than superstition and commercial interest.

Proposition 9: Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) for education needs to be revisited in the light of COVID-19. The force majeur of the pandemic is causing unplanned disruptions and the world is now seriously off-track to achieve SDG4. There are many implications for SDG4 including i) children de-schooled by temporary closures may not return; ii) ambitions to extend universal schooling to grade 12 look premature, given the costs and likely falls in levels of employment; iii) demand for technical and vocational education will fall; iv) equitable opportunities to learn are threatened by instabilities in income, staffing and safety; v) universal literacy has less utility as modern sector development slows; and vi) global citizenship is challenged by closing borders and restrictions on movement of workers and students. How should the Goal and targets now be adapted to the radically different country circumstances created by COVID-19?

Proposition 10: The SDG4 indicators also need to be changed, even if SDG4 and its Targets are retained. Useful targets need to be achievable and target setters must co-commit with target getters to common indicators that are relevant to different systems. What is important is dependent on where education systems are located on the pandemic curve. Measuring changes in enrolment rates during a system closure has a different meaning, learning levels need assessing in a different way before and after disrupted schooling, and gender equity may look different as a result of changes in social care. GDP in many LICs and LMICs will fall and educational spending will prove sticky on the downturn. The SDG4 indicator of the percentage of GDP spent on education will mislead. It will increase in value if GDP shrinks faster than educational spending though less money will be spent on education. It needs replacing.

The pandemic is nowhere near over. It will not be resolved in 2020 and COVID-19 may return. History suggests that all pandemics dissipate, and that underlying trends of development reappear with a degree of continuity with the past. Global prescriptions have to be matched by local interpretations of what works best in context. Education systems have a special responsibility to disseminate and interrogate evidence on COVID-19, so that real facts are not overshadowed by superstition, self-interested bias, and electoral expedience.

Until it becomes much clearer what aspects of social and economic organisation really have irreversibly changed, which new developments are functional and durable, and which have the support of effective demand rather than the fragility of supply-pushed solutions, the smart money is on incremental recovery and development strategies closely coupled to feedback on effects. Radical departures that imagine away inconvenient truths about the difficulties of educating all the children, overlook growing inequalities, and put faith in simple solutions to complex problems risk undermining much of what has been achieved over the last three development decades. The need is to stay focussed on development that is economically, socially, medically, and educationally sustainable, and that preserve Spaceship Earth for future generations. Seriously revisiting the SDG4 targets and indicators and their relationships with other SDGs and economic recovery from global recession, would be a great start.

The ideas in this blog are developed more fully in Prospects: Contingent reflections on coronavirus and priorities for educational planning and development DOI: 10.1007/s11125-020-09480-3