By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics
Since the first school closures in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented education systems with unprecedented challenges. The declaration of the Global Education Meeting (GEM) in October 2020 captured the concerns of the international education community and a set of commitments that would need to be monitored.
On the occasion of the latest Global Education Meeting, which took place last week, on July 13, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) published a new Information Paper, which offers a progress report against these commitments based on the third round of the Joint Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures, conducted by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and OECD, and data available from government websites and publications.
GEM commitment 7.1 to increase education financing. Overall, global government spending on education as a share of total government spending decreased from 2019 to 2021. However,looking at the education budgets of more than 100 countries, affecting around three-quarters of the school-age population, most actually increased their education spending. Thus, the decrease seen between 2019 and 2021 means that spending in areas other than education have been increasing at a relatively faster pace, as a result of stimulus packages.
Budget on education as a proportion of total government budget, 2019–2021
A recent report for the G20 Education working group indicated that stimulus packages could have provided a substantial boost of education funding. Yet, on average, only 3.2% went to education, according to a UNESCO analysis as of April 2021.
GEM commitment 8.1 to safely reopen schools. Safely reopening education institutions requires minimizing virus transmission in schools. But, according to the latest Joint Survey results, although almost all ministries of education endorsed the implementation of specific health and hygiene guidelines and measures for schools, only 55% of countries reported having adequate resources (e.g., soap, masks etc.) and infrastructure (e.g., clean water, WASH facilities) to do so in reality. Low-income countries struggle even more, only 6% of them indicated that they had enough resources and infrastructure to assure the safety of learners and all school staff.
Countries endorsing and complying with health measures in schools, 2019/2020 school year
The GEM commitment to safely reopen schools also stipulates that this action should be “equity-oriented”. Yet, only 9% of countries reported taking one or more measures to specifically support the education of at least one vulnerable group (i.e. girls, ethnic minorities, etc.).
GEM commitment 8.2 to support teachers and education personnel. Supporting teaching and education personnel is essential to closing the learning gaps as schools reopen. Although this can assume many forms, the Joint Survey focused on the recruitment of additional staff, provision of training and professional development in the use of technologies. Compared to the second Joint Survey round, the percentage of countries that recruited additional teachers following the reopening of schools in 2019/2020 increased from 26% to 33%. Most countries offered special training to teachers on remote learning and provided professional development activities (e.g., workshops and webinars) on pedagogy and effective use of technologies with various pedagogies.
Countries supporting teachers and education personnel, 2019/2020 school year
Notably, 40% of upper-middle-income countries in 2019/20 recruited additional teachers – more than any other income group – but just 25% of low-income countries. Most countries provided teachers with special training and professional development activities on pedagogy and effective use of technologies. Unfortunately, the provision of such support to teachers was much lower in low-income countries.
Countries recruiting and supporting teachers and education personnel by income group, 2019/20 school year
GEM commitment 8.3 to invest in workforce skills development. Globally, 41% of countries responding to the survey had planned new training programmes or activities in digital skills for their workforce, while 30% of countries took measures to foster social and emotional learning and well-being, or to develop attitudes, knowledge and behaviour for sustainable development for labourers. Only 14% of low-income countries planned measures to facilitate skills development, decent work and enhanced employability during the pandemic. This has serious implications for worsening in-country and global inequities among the labour force.
Provision of supportive resources to facilitate skills development for labourers during the pandemic across countries, 2020/21 school year
GEM commitment 8.4 to narrow the digital divide. As education systems were forced to adapt quickly to distance learning platforms, most governments around the world provided a remote learning modality in primary and secondary education. At the pre-primary level, 95% of countries provided at least one type of distance learning solution in 2020/21, corresponding to 65% of students.
Provision of remote learning modalities by education level, 2019/20 school year
The provision of remote learning solutions does not in itself ensure uptake by learners. The use of distance education varies by level of education: 61% of students at pre-primary level compared with 77% at upper secondary level engaged in distance education during school closures in 2019/20.
Student usage of distance education during school closures by income group and education level, 2019/20 school year
Knowing where we stand in our commitments will help us reassess and adjust strategies to recover from education deficits. Refocusing initiatives to provide much-needed resources and support to prepare learners for the challenges of tomorrow is an ongoing endeavour that will require regular reassessments. In our ongoing efforts to attain SDG 4, the UIS remains committed to working with education partners to make the path to success clearer so we can ensure that our collective education goals come within reach.