18 March 2020. Can you believe it’s been almost a year? It feels like worlds away, but also like yesterday. I can barely remember what I ate for dinner yesterday, but I can remember that day, sure enough. I expect many of you can too.
Slumped on the sofa (perhaps a reflection of what the next few months would hold?), a nation of students watched in disbelief as the Prime Minister announced the closure of schools due to coronavirus. And more crucially, the cancellation of A level exams came with a cancellation of any sort of certainty. So how will I get into uni then? Were the years of studying a waste of time then? Wait, seven months of nothing? No school at all?
I’m sure many of us remember waves of confusion, panic, relief, all converging into a tsunami of emotion as we prepared to leave school for good with just three days notice. And then the silence of lockdown, devoid of alarms or chattering corridors or clattering cutlery in the canteen. A silence gradually filled by a sense of loss and grief, and ultimately denial of the climax of 14 years in the British education system. We had worked to prove ourselves in these exams. But now the grades determining our futures were taken out of our hands? It just didn’t seem fair at all.
But things work out, and I guess it’s ok for most of us now. Online uni from home isn’t quite the student life I had in mind, but it’s normal for the time being. If anything, I’m more grateful to be in education than ever, with a sense of purpose that a summer sleeping in the garden didn’t quite offer. How blessed I am to have education at the centre of my routine again.
A global perspective
A true blessing it is, though, in comparison to the experiences of many of our peers around the world. Two thirds of school aged children have no internet access at home (UNICEF-ITU, 2020). This means that the pandemic isn’t just leaving cracks in their education, but entire crevasses. In fact, UNICEF have recently unveiled a Pandemic Classroom exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York. It’s made up of 168 desks, chairs and backpacks – each one representing a million children who have spent an entire year out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic. The entitlement to a ‘normal’ school or uni experience felt by many of us is suddenly catapulted into perspective when we consider our position within our global family. We are in a position of immense privilege.
Education has improved globally, with 91% of 15-24 year olds considered literate (UNESCO, 2020). However, this is still 9% of young people who have been denied access to a basic education – a figure which is unacceptable. A more just and equal world must involve educational opportunities for all children, with nobody slipping through the net.
But why is education so important? I’m sure we’ve all had days where the thought of next morning’s alarm fills us with dread rather than joy. Perhaps our motivation to keep going is to secure our future finances – every added year of schooling increases a person’s earning potential by 10% (World Bank, 2018). For us, this may look like a fancy summer holiday or new car, but for our brothers and sisters across the world, that extra 10% may be vital to feed their families, or secure a safe roof over their heads.
School of life
My disappointment at the cancellation of exams revealed to me a deeper importance of education beyond economics: education enables us to feel empowered and forms part of our identity. Education can expand our imaginations of what we can and will achieve, and helps to direct the course of our future. In broadening access to education, we can offer more children a safe space in which to grow and flourish, secure in their identities.
Imagining an alternative future can help children avoid child marriage or exploitation by terrorist groups who prey on vulnerable youth. As argued by Victor Hugo, ‘He who opens a school door closes a prison’. Be this in its most literal sense, or through breaking down the prisons of poor self esteem and desperation which place constraints on a child’s future.
In Chad, education has been transformational for Katari, who at age 40 was illiterate. Katari felt burdened when asking for help to complete everyday tasks or not being able to read a newspaper. But this changed when he accessed classes run by the Chadian Association of Literacy, Linguistics and Bible Translation. After three years, Katari was able to read, write and calculate in Gurey language (McGrane, 2020). Such stories of hope also bring long term change, as educated adults can pass on their skills to their children. However, we cannot be content. Why did Katari have to wait until age 40 to access education when it is a universal human right?
Even when education is offered, it is entangled with a complex politics of access and inequality. Many children cannot access education due to economic barriers. In low income countries, the rate of school completion varies from 79% of children in the richest households to just 20% in the poorest (UN, 2021). As with most global injustices, it is the poor who are left behind.
A lesson in inequality
Poverty and education are also related in higher income countries, even when education is free. Speaking of the context of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, NY, Nadia Lopez describes how 86% of her students, all of whom are below the poverty line, start at a below-grade level in English and maths. Schools in poorer areas may struggle to attract teachers, and lower parental engagement can mean that children are less supported in accessing education rather than falling prey to local gangs.
How is this the case in a country renowned for its prestigious Ivy League education system? Clearly education provision alone is not enough, and governments must address the underlying inequalities in access. Despite the power of education, opening a school in an impoverished village does not absolve global leaders of their role in structural inequality.
Besides poverty, other inequalities are at play. Children with disabilities, those who are part of ethnic or linguistic minorities, or those living in remote locations are less likely to access education than their peers (World Bank, 2020). Girls are also at a significant disadvantage across the world, with only 66% countries achieving gender parity in primary education. This figure falls to just 25% by upper secondary (UNICEF, 2021), reflecting how girls are more likely to drop out than their male counterparts.
Female participation is restricted by factors including poor menstrual hygiene provision, experiences of gender based violence on the way to and from school, the prioritisation of male education by some poorer families and teenage pregnancy or marriage. The COVID-19 pandemic may deepen the crisis in gender equality, as girls adopt caregiving roles within the family home and are unable to attend school. Suddenly, my status as a female attending university in the UK seems a place of indescribable privilege.
Education for all
Compared to many of our peers around the world, the pause in our education is a fairly minor challenge. Most importantly, we are able to open our laptops and resume learning, a luxury many children won’t have. We all expect, and are legally expected, to be in school and cannot be silent until education is a norm for all children, not just the lucky ones.
I’m not suggesting every child should sit and read Shakespeare or follow a western model of education – there is no universal ‘best fit’ education that provides an easy solution to global injustice. But I do believe that an appropriate, relevant and empowering education should be open to all, with no child left behind.