Generation of learning loss due to COVID-19

Inequality is not a new problem, but the COVID-19 pandemic just made it more visible around the world. “Learning Loss” became a common experience for this generation of children in vulnerable groups. (Photo courtesy of APREMC II)

Education is an important tool when dealing with inequality, be it economic, social or others. Children can escape the poverty trap, whereas their parents could not do so for generations, according to Dr. Kraiyos Patrawart, Managing Director, Equitable Education Fund (EEF).

Inequality is not a new problem, but the COVID-19 pandemic just made it more visible around the world. “Learning Loss” became a common experience for this generation of children in vulnerable groups.

According to the latest study by UNESCO and UNICEF, countries in the Asia-Pacific region were the first to be impacted by COVID-19, which disrupted access to education for 760 million children during the initial peak of the pandemic in 2020.

Though the problem is not unique to Thailand, the Thai government admits that it is a big challenge trying to keep all children in school. Education minister, Treenuch Thienthong, said that just another 3 more years in secondary school can make a huge difference in their life opportunities.

“What we can do quickly is to create learning networks. Small schools are possibly not ready to merge with others a hundred percent. Let’s say we have a “mother school”, in which the government helps to fund the improvement of facilities, we could also call it a “magnet school”. At the same time, surrounding schools, with 20, 30 or 50 students in total, with a couple of teachers, can send some kids first. Kids from year 5 or 6, who are able to travel, can be sent to these magnet schools. Then, teachers at small schools can take care of the rest or, if they wish to merge, there is no problem at all,” explained Treenuch Thienthong, Minister of Education.

The minister said that not all small schools have to consider merging. She insists that schools in remote areas, such as on an island or in mountainous areas, will be supported by the education ministry, with the goal of ensuring access to education for all.

In 2008, the Equitable Education Fund, or EEF, was set up in the hope of helping to reduce education inequality through a systematic research, teacher development and financial support for children and youth who are considered to be vulnerable.

The organisation has supported over 700,000 students and provided 2,500 vocational scholarships per year across the country. One of their goals is to return out-of-school children to education, or provide them with appropriate training.

That is what education ministry has also been trying to do for the past few months, according to the minister, return kids to school. They managed to find 64,000 students who fell out of the Thai education system during the pandemic. Fortunately, a majority of them were able to return. The big concern, however, is over about 8,000 of them who are still outside the system.

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To repair the damage wrought by the pandemic, Debora Comini, the director of UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO), said that we need to understand what was lost. “That is part of UNICEF’s support, assessing what was lost. What was the gap, even before the pandemic, must be identified before we are able to understand where to tackle the situation best,” Comini added.

Comini said that one very urgent fix is to make sure that every child is back in school. UNICEF insists that schools should be the very last to close, and the very first services to reopen “as safely as possible”.

For sustainable development, the EEF has been advocating “for-all education” and “area-based” education. “Since it is very detailed work and needs interdisciplinary skills, it cannot always be achieved on the national level. It has to be decentralised, to be managed at the provincial level and even more localised,” Dr. Kraiyos elaborated.

He said the education institutes have to have opportunities to work with the communities and local agencies, decentralising the system, so they can be the answer in their own context. He said people who are close to the problem will know the root of the problem the best. The EEF’s job is to provide the necessary tools, technologies, innovations and knowledge needed to make it sustainable.

Recently UNESCO and UNICEF have co-hosted the Asia-Pacific Regional Education Minister’s conference in Bangkok, together with Thai education ministry, to be a space where each country can share their knowledge and strategies in recovering from learning loss and looking into the future of the education system.

Shigeru Aoyagi, Director of the Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, said that the most urgent thing is how we can recover from the COVID-19 learning disruption, which effected students’ competence and learning loss.

“How can we recover this loss as fast, as quickly as possible? That will be the most important and urgent thing. Beyond that, it will be a wonderful opportunity for us to think about the future of education,” said Aoyagi.

The United Nations will hold a “transforming education” summit in September, which will tackle the problem of how the world recovers from learning loss, and rethink the future of education, based on the experiences the world gained during the pandemic.

by Tulip Naksompop Blauw



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