Covid-19 has been an earthquake along the already fraught fault lines of global education. The result has been a deep chasm into which the most vulnerable have fallen: 1.6 billion children were out of education at the height of school closures.
If we do not act now with new tactics and strategies, including changes to the way we deliver aid, the young face a tsunami of looming poverty that will wipe away their opportunities and future prosperity. If we do not act now, we should not expect their forgiveness.
Even before the pandemic, more students were in school but this did not translate into more learning. About 53 per cent of children suffer from learning poverty — either not in school or unable to read and understand a simple story by age 10. Covid-19 could force another 10 per cent of students into learning poverty. Those in school stand to lose $10 trillion in earnings due to the learning deficit.
The economic fallout from the pandemic contracted global gross domestic product (GDP) by 3.3 per cent last year, which escalated poverty and slashed public spending on human capital. The knock-on effect has forced more children, especially 20 million girls, out of school forever. That is an alarming sign that the Sustainable Development Goal on education is under grave threat.
But the pandemic also offers a window of opportunity to prioritise investment in people by building resilient and equitable education systems that address learning poverty. Any investment must have a sharp focus on equity and cost-effectiveness, especially in poor and vulnerable settings.
The benefits are clear: Investing in learning outcomes is central to building human capital, which drives productivity, prosperity and progress. Every year of schooling raises a person’s earnings by 10 per cent and boosts a country’s GDP by 18 per cent. If all adults had just two more years of schooling, nearly 60 million people could escape poverty.
So, it is heartening to see many countries deploy remote learning solutions during the pandemic. Sadly, the virtual space exposed the widening disparities between students with resources and those who lack them.
Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that these solutions were difficult to use for even half of the students. Given the inequalities, we must prioritise the learning outcomes of children from marginalised backgrounds.
But such interventions alone, however effective, are not enough. Shrinking economic activity, heavy debt burdens and depleting revenues are limiting governments from investing in human capital for long-term development.
We need a fundamental shift in the development finance ecosystem to support developing countries in coping with these challenges and in building their resilience, which is integral to the recovery and strengthening of their education systems.
To assist with this, we have developed a Universal Vulnerability Index which could transform eligibility for development finance. We must move beyond the narrow analysis of GDP and per capita income as criteria for assessing entitlement to support towards a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of broader factors that tend to amplify vulnerability and diminish resilience.
As the Global Education Summit takes place this week, the international community must reform measures of eligibility for access to development finance which will assist developing countries in better spending on education and rebuilding their economies.
Education and innovation are the currencies of the 21st Century with digitalisation shaping the future of work, learning, trade, cooperation and societal affairs.
To avoid repeating the mistake, we must accelerate investment in the affordability of digital literacy, connectivity for schools, qualified teachers, hybrid learning solutions and online opportunities for young people based on principles of equity, inclusion and gender equality.
In these challenging times, the world needs a bold, fresh and evidence-based vision for education led by awareness, data and action, while aiming for every new investment not simply to improve learning outcomes but to multiply them.
We need to tackle this learning crisis with the same rigour, resolve and resourcefulness demonstrated against the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Ms Scotland is the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. @PScotlandCSG