OPINION: Mind the gap: here’s how to stop the world’s poorest students falling behind

by Manos Antoninis | UNESCO
Thursday, 3 September 2020 13:12 GMT

Dishes are seen in a classroom as Senegal has postponed the reopening of schools, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pikine, on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Investing now in bringing students back to school and helping them catch up is far cheaper than providing a second-chance education for those who have fallen out of education due to COVID-19

Manos Antoninis is the director of the Global Education Monitoring report, UNESCO.

Never before have so many children been out of school, with the most disadvantaged at risk of never seeing the inside of a classroom again.

Distance education is not an option for at least 580 million students according to a UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank survey. Even when there are distance learning options available, they only reach learners for a fraction of the time they were attending school before. The vast majority of students have now fallen behind. It is no exaggeration to talk of the risk of a lost generation: according to a UNESCO estimate, 11 million children may never go back to school. The life prospects of millions of learners from poor backgrounds hang in the balance.

Five years ago, the world committed to Sustainable Development Goal 4 - to ensure inclusive and quality education for all by 2030. The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report estimated at the time what governments in low- and lower-middle-income countries needed to spend to meet this goal and how much external financial aid was required to support them.

We concluded that, even before COVID-19, the total annual cost of universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education for these countries is US$504 billion a year. Of that amount, US$356 billion is projected to be covered by domestic resources, under plausible assumptions on growth, tax revenues, and the priority assigned to education. This means there is an annual funding gap of US$148 billion between now and 2030.

Impossible, you might think. But that depends on your priorities. Global military expenditure per year is US$1.8 trillion, for instance. Just one month of this spending could send all children to school around the world.

Priorities are coming into question with COVID-19 too, with governments weighing up health and economic benefits every day. School closures, the GEM Report has found, risk increasing the funding gap by up to 30% because of costs related to remediation and re-enrolment programmes for students who have missed out.  Also driving higher costs is the need to ensure children are safe when they return to school in a pandemic by allowing for additional spaces and proper hygiene facilities.

There is an opportunity to prevent these costs from spiralling further. Investing now in bringing students back to school and helping them catch up is far cheaper than providing a second-chance education for those who have fallen out of education. Upfront investment, the Report calculates, could reduce the potential cost of COVID-19 on education by 75%.

Stopping the education emergency that has fallen out of this health crisis requires, therefore, systemic change. One of the problems, however, is that education has long been losing ground as a donor priority. Its share of total aid fell from 14.8% in 2003 to 10.8% in 2018. Only about US$7.4 billion goes to primary and secondary education in low- and lower-middle-income countries. But, instead of increasing further to stop this education crisis, recent analysis from the GEM Report warned that total aid to education is likely to decline by up to US$2 billion until 2022 as a result of the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Finance ministers are being convened this week by the United Nations Secretary-General to look at financing in the ‘Era of COVID-19’. Our message to them is to see education as key to the recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

Education aid and education budgets must at the very least be maintained if not increased and targeted at the most marginalised countries and students. Education ministers need to work collaboratively with the finance and social protection ministries on programmes such as cash transfers aimed at the most vulnerable, to make it easier for families to send their children back to school.

Investing in education now is not just good will; it is also good sense: it will save funds in the long-term and is critical for getting our societies back to some form of normality.

Achieving SDG 4 is still possible, but it requires a strong commitment to investing in education for the world’s most marginalized students. The coming months are critical if we want to prevent this student cohort from becoming a lost generation.