The pandemic’s impact on enrolment is yet to unfold

Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Borhene Chakroun, Director for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems, UNESCO. With contributions from UNESCO Section of Education Policy: Gwang-Chol Chang, Satoko Yano, Sara Bin Mahfooz, Juliette Norrmén-Smith, and Danni Xu.

Due to COVID-19, schools across the world were fully closed, on average, for 79 instruction days in 2020. Although schools are now fully open in most countries, around 117 million students are still affected by full school closures in 18 countries.

In July 2020, UNESCO estimated that the pandemic would cause an increase of 24 million learners at risk of leaving school early of which 11 million in primary and secondary school. How many of these children would never go back to school? The answer to that question depends on the rapidly changing situation, pandemic recovery plans, and the continued efforts of governments and the international community to leave no one behind.

According to the data on 2020 enrolments recently released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, there are 3.5 million more out-of-school learners in primary and secondary education relative to 2019, which brings the total from 256 million to 259.5 million in 2020. Why does the impact seem to be more muted than expected?

Two factors influence data in accounting students at risk of leaving school early.

First, the available data only partially captures the impact of the pandemic. In fact, although reported as ‘2020 enrolments’, most countries reported their 2019/20 academic year enrolments. In 3 of every 5 countries, which follow the northern hemisphere calendar, school years are divided by a break in the summer months, June through August. This means that much of the data was collected before the pandemic forced schools to close their doors and begin the 2020/21 school year remotely in the fall 2021. It is also worth noticing that the out-of-school regional averages estimates for 2020 could partially reflect pre-COVID enrolments trend because the estimates include imputations for missing data produced using the most recent, yet past, data available for countries with missing data for 2020.

Second, for countries that did report their 2020/21 enrolment data, these numbers likely do not tell the full story. Where in-person learning was suspended at the start of the year, digitized enrollment and attendance procedures may have failed to accurately count students, especially in places with weak education information management systems. Beyond the digital barriers, many systems continue to struggle capturing those out-of-school children not in the formal education system, such as students with additional needs enrolled in specialized schools.

Furthermore, students may have dropped from distance learning programs immediately after enrolling, such as those students without access to internet or devices, or those facing socioeconomic challenges to their continued learning. In countries that used TV and radio programmes for distance learning, accurately measuring student attendance is an additional challenge.

With these two factors in mind, the global picture of early school leaving risk would likely look different if countries’ reports included both 2020/21 enrolment and accounted for students who enrolled but never attended classes. At micro level, country case studies would help capture the extent of the pandemic impact on early school leaving.

There is broad consensus that it will take some time to understand the full picture of the pandemic’s impact on education and specifically on early school leaving. UNESCO will continue to collect and analyze the data as it becomes available. The 2020 dropout rate could climb higher than currently reported.

From a policy perspective, the increased early school leaving risk has not gone unnoticed. At global level, UNESCO together with UNICEF and the World Bank launched Mission Recovery to support countries in bringing all learners back to school. At country level, governments made—and continue to make—efforts to prevent early school leaving by ensuring learning continuity and offering health, sanitation, and financial support to learners and schools. Teachers, school leaders, and community organizations have also been critical actors in the push to prevent students from leaving school early. Despite these efforts, more support is still needed for learners at risk.

What can governments and the international community do now to address this risk and reduce the number of students who will no longer set foot again in an education institution?

Countries should consider three broad areas of policy action, as the Italian Presidency’s G20 education report highlighted. First, prevention actions, which tackle the root problems that eventually result in leaving school early. For example, adding flexible education and learning pathways can curtail early school leaving, as can sustained education financing and prioritizing gender equity and inclusion of vulnerable learners.

Second, intervention actions, which address emerging difficulties experienced by learners by improving the quality of education and training and by providing targeted support. These actions include supporting learners with special needs, students from ethnic minorities and poor socio-economic backgrounds, and schools to prioritize nutrition and wellbeing.

Third, compensation actions, which create new opportunities for those who have left education and training prematurely to gain qualifications. For example, second-chance programmes, non-formal education and pre-vocational training programmes.

Taken in tandem, these three types of actions will prevent more children from joining the nearly 260 million worldwide that may never go back to school. Only through collective action can we bring them back.


* Image credit: GPE/Alberto Begue


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