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International Day of Education 2021: Harnessing the promise of innovation in education

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A classroom in the public primary school of Ianjanina in rural Madagascar. Photo: © Mohammad Al-Arief/World Bank A classroom in the public primary school of Ianjanina in rural Madagascar. Photo: © Mohammad Al-Arief/World Bank

Nearly a year after the World Health Organization first declared a global health emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impose a devastating toll on the education of millions of children and young people.  School closures are severely undermining learning opportunities for students at all levels, from primary to higher education. They are also depriving students of social contact with their peers.

In low- and middle-income countries that have fragile education systems, the impact is particularly acute. This is why the World Bank is now working in 62 countries on COVID-19 response projects with education components. These total US$4.7 billion, covering the entire education cycle from early childhood to higher education. The focus includes remote learning, boosting long-term systemic resilience, and reducing education inequalities, which have grown during the pandemic.   

As the world marks the International Day of Education, it remains as urgent as ever to tackle the silent global education crisis, which was already festering before the global health crisis and is now further aggravated by the pandemic. Countries must mobilize, invest effectively and creatively to make the most of limited resources, and embrace a new vision of education for the future. 

Before the coronavirus spread around the world, over a quarter billion children were not attending school globally. And an estimated 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries suffered from Learning Poverty, unable to read and understand a simple text at the age of 10. We were already facing a learning crisis.

At the peak of school closures in April 2020, 1.6 billion children were out of school worldwide. Today, around 700 million students are still studying from home.  Many school systems have reopened only to be forced to return to remote or hybrid learning.  Early evidence from high-income countries has already revealed learning losses and increases in inequality. The financial strain on families caused by the pandemic-related recession has also increased the dropout rate, with girls particularly at risk of missing out on education.

As the public health emergency continues to rage, an additional 72 million children have seen their learning and long-term prospects undermined. Countries are being driven even further off-track from achieving their education goals – potentially increasing Learning Poverty levels  to 63 percent. Beyond the tragic consequences for members of this generation, who face unfulfilled potential and collective future earning losses of up to $10 trillion, countries could suffer a long-term shortfall in the skilled human capital they will need to recover and sustain their economic growth.

The COVID-19 crisis is shining a spotlight on the worst education crisis in a century, and on growing inequalities in access to quality education both within and between countries.  But it can also serve as a catalyst for sustainable and innovative reform. A path forward and a new vision for the education of the future are emerging, which harness the power of innovation and technology and support teachers’ skills and creativity.

With World Bank assistance, many countries have already adopted innovative teaching methods to mitigate the immediate impact of the pandemic. 

  • In Nigeria’s Edo state, for example, interactive lessons are broadcast to students by radio, while parents, who play an important supportive role in this new approach to education, receive lessons plans through WhatsApp.
  • Turkey worked with national broadcaster TRT to set up three learning channels, which are also available online through the Educational Information Network (EBA), reaching all basic education students. The platform will be further enhanced with support from the World Bank.
  • Uruguay – where internet reaches over 93% of households with children aged 14 or younger – has used digital media for its “Ceibal en casa” program for at-home learning. The government has also used TV to reach the unconnected.    

While addressing the COVID-19 emergency, countries are laying the foundations for greater resilience and sustainability in education. That is why we are working with countries on the next phases. What comes next is managing continuity, with the immediate priority to ensure that schools reopen safely and minimize student dropouts, especially among girls. Nothing can replace in-person social engagement. 

Looking to the future, we need to recover learning losses and build the foundations for accelerated learning that provides the opportunity to build resilient, equitable, and personalized education systems that are not confined to the four walls of the classroom. Learning must become accessible to everyone, everywhere.

At the peak of the pandemic, 220 million students in tertiary education worldwide were also affected by campus closures, with the technical and vocational education training sector also disrupted.  To address financing challenges and ensure that skills development programs remain relevant in a rapidly changing social and economic landscape, higher education will also have to change.  It must make greater use of information and communications technology, tapping the pools of knowledge and skills in universities and vocational training centers for problem solving and community service.

The African Centers of Excellence, for example, have supported rapid response initiatives by universities and research faculties in 19 countries across the continent. This has included developing personal protection equipment (PPE) and training medical technicians to deliver rapid COVID-19 testing and, soon, vaccination. In Pakistan, the authorities have provided access to online platforms to a million university students.

These are important steps in the right direction. Closing the digital divide will be costly but crucial to ensure that even the most disadvantaged have equal access to learning. It will be equally important to ensure that teachers at all education levels are adequately trained and supported to operate in non-traditional learning environments. “School beyond walls” also means supporting parents’ efforts to help children learn at home.

The World Bank will continue to assist low- and middle-income countries as they boost their learning infrastructure.  The challenge is huge, but the well-being and prosperity of an entire generation are at stake.


Urgent, Effective Action Required to Quell the Impact of COVID-19 on Education Worldwide


Mari Elka Pangestu

Former World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships

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