This blog was written by Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge. It is the first in a series of blogs reflecting on the impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic on research work on international education and development.  The blog is also published on the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education website and the Cambridge University Press website.

As the Director of a multi-connected and vibrant university Centre, I have been struck over the past couple of weeks by how our staff, students and international partners have been forced to quickly adapt, as a result of the current global COVID-19 pandemic. While the most immediate direct and visible effects of the pandemic are inevitably on health systems, it also has short- and long-term effects on education systems that are vital to understand and respond to. As a research Centre, REAL focuses on understanding the nature of inequalities in education systems and look to evaluating approaches which can improve access and the quality of education for the most marginalised. Therefore, it will be essential for us to learn from this global crisis – which has the potential to further widen existing inequalities and affect the provision of education indefinitely.

Efforts to support the continuation of education during the crisis

Credit: GPE/Livia Barton

No education system is untouched by the global education emergency. According to UNESCO data (as at 6 April 2020), 1.6 billion learners around the world are affected by school closures due to COVID-19 (91% of total enrolled learners), and 188 countries have closed down schools. In addition, a further, 258 million children were already out of school. I have been struck by how many organisations have swiftly developed resources to inform the global community on the immediate impacts of COVID-19 with respect to school closures, and to share materials aimed at keeping education going. Given that they are often criticised for being slow, and overly-bureaucratic, it’s great to see UNESCO’s leadership in bringing together resources on educational disruption and response., as well as solutions and tools for distance learning. UNESCO’s International Institute of Education Planning (IIEP) is keeping a record of national education plans.

The Center for Global Development is providing an informative ongoing assessment and analysis of what countries across the world are doing in response to the crisis, with data made publicly available to researchers looking at specific country level.

It is also notable to see examples of some governments responding rapidly to trying to keep education going when schools have closed. These include the adoption of relevant technologies where there is limited internet connectivity. For example, Ministries of Education in Liberia and Kenya are rolling out radio programmes for distance learning. The DFID-funded EdTech Hub – a collaborative partnership seeking to address gaps in our understanding of how technology can be used in global learning – is developing a curated database of response efforts that will be shortly released through the Hub’s COVID-19 Response page.

Schools are not only a place of learning but also provide other forms of support to children. Recognising the potential impact that stopping school feeding could have on the vulnerable, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development in Nigeria has announced that the school feeding programme will keep going.

Need for more evidence of lessons learned

While this is by no means the first crisis or pandemic that has had a serious effect on education systems, there is a woeful lack of evidence on how these systems cope, including lessons for how they need to adapt when schools re-open. Sadly it also won’t be the last crisis. It will therefore be important to monitor the effects of government programmes to learn lessons for other contexts, and for the future. This monitoring needs to pay attention in particular to the implications for current and future inequalities.

To give a couple of examples of areas where evidence is needed: first, what are the implications of school closures where parents have not themselves been to school? Here in the UK, we are hearing the challenges that schooling children at home is bringing to parents, where juggling work and schooling proves demanding. Teachers are now being appreciated more than ever! But what about in contexts where parents have lower levels of literacy, and also have more limited access to technology and internet connectivity? In Ethiopia, thanks to a wave of government education investment and reforms, primary school enrolment has more than doubled since 2000. As a result, many children are ‘first-generation learners’, that is children whose parents never went to school. Drawing on Young Lives data, our analysis shows that these children are already amongst those least likely to be learning. The ability of their parents to support education is likely to be severely constrained, even more given they are also amongst the poorest and so least likely to have access to any form of technology or other potential sources of learning.

Second, how can the potential negative effects on marginalised girls be mitigated? A 2019 paper from the World Bank Group, The Economic Lives of Young Women in the Time of Ebola: Lessons from an Empowerment Program, showed how the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone had a wide range of negative impacts for adolescent girls with implications for increased teenage pregnancy, resulting in fewer girls returning to school after the crisis. Schools were closed in the country for an entire academic year in 2014-15. Clubs where young girls could participate in life skills training, assisted with dampening the impacts of the crisis: helping younger girls to stay in school while working, and avoiding the increased likelihood of them becoming pregnant. This important paper is now being widely cited in the context of the current pandemic but appears to be a rare example of such evidence.

What can we contribute as researchers?

As researchers working on education, we have been considering what we at the REAL Centre can contribute at the current time. There are so many immediate priorities, and clearly key amongst them are ones related to ensuring the poorest countries have the necessary health personnel, sufficient ventilators, and so on. Working at home on our own can give a feeling of helplessness amongst the enormity of such challenges over which I at least feel I have limited expertise to offer.

In discussion with our partners in different countries, such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Pakistan, we realise that there are things that we as education researchers can do now. Notably, it is important to gather evidence to ensure that policy actors are informed with respect to the ongoing implications of COVID-19 for education given these will continue for the foreseeable future, as well as to inform planning when another pandemic sadly inevitably comes around.

A number of our research projects were midway through quantitative data collection, such as for the World Bank-funded Early Learning Partnership programme in Ethiopia, and the Mastercard Foundation-funded Leaders in Teaching initiative in Rwanda. In both cases, data had been collected at the beginning of the school year, with the intention of a second round of data collection at the end of the school year in order to identify the added value of learning from being in school for children from different backgrounds. With school closures, such data collection is clearly not possible. Even if schools do open again within this school year, the type of analysis that was envisaged is not likely to be relevant.

In both cases, funders and partners have been keen to show flexibility in adapting to the new reality. Rather than seeing a hindrance to our plans, we have worked together to identify how we can collect data in real time that could be informative for the governments in these countries. In Ethiopia, for example, together with colleagues at Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute, we are considering the use of phone surveys to see how information is flowing through the system such that school principals have information they need and can act upon, and whether information is also flowing back upwards. In Rwanda, with Laterite, we are planning to use phone surveys with teachers to help identify the challenges they are facing in the context of school closures, and whether education in any form has been possible to continue. The intention in both cases is to gather data that will hopefully help inform policy actors as schools start to re-open, recognising that there might well be a stop-go-stop process in the coming months and even years.

As with others, we are trying to adapt quickly to the current realities, while also learning as we are doing so. We need to learn from previous experience of research of education in emergency situations, for example. This includes how local solutions for adapting education has been possible, for example, where technology isn’t necessarily available or the answer. Importantly also, we need to place at the forefront consideration of ethical issues of whether and how to undertake research in the current circumstances. Where data collection is continuing, we are learning how to adapt our research methods from ones where data are being collected on the ground to remote data collection.

Through this blog series, we will aim to share the voices from our research partners and students across different countries. We would welcome your thoughts and insights from your experience and hope to open up a wider discussion on how researchers working on education can contribute to an evidence base that will be of relevance to policy actors now and in the future.