“Doing no harm” in and through education

One of the most striking effects of the global pandemic is how millions of people have faced moral dilemmas. Choices over education is a case in point.

The education sector often looks to the health sector for ideas, inspired by its success in global mobilization and reaching consensus on sophisticated metrics. What has received less explicit attention in education are guiding principles in health, notably the imperative to “do no harm”. This principle implies that no plan or programme can be put in place if it risks actively harming anyone at all.  While this has been adopted as a guiding principle by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, it plays little role in mainstream education debates. But should it? What would it mean?

The health and education crisis caused by Covid–19 puts a spotlight on this issue that offers lessons that will remain relevant long after.

Image: Arete / Ivan Armando Flores

In health, the do no harm principle means that the process for developing and approving a vaccine can only be sped up so much, no matter how desperate and impatient we are for it. We cannot risk cutting corners only to find out later that the vaccine is actually harmful, for instance. Similarly, even when health workers are urgently needed, those among them suspected of being infected are told not to come to work.

In education, the first reaction almost everywhere has been to encourage or even require distance learning to be put in place to support home schooling, which rely heavily, in the majority of countries, on technology. However, not all families have the same access to technical infrastructure (devices, high-speed internet), time (jobs that cannot be performed at home), or familiarity with the curriculum content to take advantage of these schemes. An ad hoc roll-out of exclusively remote learning at scale will exacerbate learning inequalities. Children from already advantaged homes are likely to be able to continue their learning, while those already disadvantaged will fall further behind.

The spirit of “do no harm” as a guiding principle is evident in some of the second-wave reactions to the mass school closures. The “least worst” approach for students as a whole may be to neither offer, nor require, any remote learning, which would benefit some, but put others at a disadvantage. This can be interpreted as an application of “do no harm”. It is a direct interpretation of ‘leave no-one behind’.  The Philadelphia School District is a case in point. It has decided that it will not offer remote instruction during the coronavirus shutdown citing equity concerns. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said about distance learning when making the announcement, “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some.”

If we were to apply this principle more strictly in our education decisions, not just in times of crisis, it would have important implications for how we prioritize and assess education policies and interventions.

The education goal in the 2030 SDG Agenda, SDG 4.a, calls for safe learning environments, for example. The do no harm principle suggests that schools must first ensure that learners are not actively harmed, by teachers administering corporal punishment or sexual abuse, by bullying peers, or exposure to unsanitary conditions before being able to open.

But, while the above are examples of unmitigated harms, more generally, most education policies and interventions that are seriously debated are at least likely to offer some benefit to some stakeholders.  “Do no harm” suggests that it is not enough to argue that they offer a benefit on average while harming some, or a benefit that outweighs a harm, or a probable benefit despite a downside risk of being harmful.

As for technology, however, which arguably is a bonus for some schools, rather than their core function, it is easier to see how the principle could be applied. A strong case can be made that education technologies should not be rolled out at all unless and until they are accessible to students with disabilities, for example.

The same argument works with curriculum content. A lack of alternatives is no reason to delay removing classroom material that incites hatred against a minority, an issue relevant to the 2020 GEM Report. Hopefully no one would argue against pulling it from classrooms even if it means that even the minority students in question will have no material for that subject in the short term.

Some countries have engaged in what are essentially high-stakes policy experiments. A prime example is the large-scale involvement of private actors in their national education systems, such as Bridge Academy Schools. The argument in favour rests on potential gains in learning and efficiency if the scheme works as advertised. The argument against points to the significant risks to equity and the most disadvantaged if quality is not assured and these positive results are not achieved. Do no harm means this decision should not be made by balancing probabilities; it must err on the side of not making the situation worse by accident, not by gambling on promises coming true.

The imperative to do no harm offers a principled way to resolve some of the controversies in international education development. It is also consistent with the call of SDG 4 to “reach the furthest behind first” – they are certainly not reached first if they are actively pushed further back.



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