Seventy percent of children in middle- and low-income countries are unable to read and understand a simple story, following restrictive lockdown measures that closed schools worldwide, according to a new report from the World Bank.
“The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update” is a joint publication of the World Bank, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which notes that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly six out of every 10 ten-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were suffering from learning poverty.
But, the global response to the pandemic between February 2020 and February 2022 resulted in education systems that were entirely closed for in-person learning for about 141 days. In parts of Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, children lost up to 273 full days of school.
“Evidence is accumulating that the capacity of these remote learning efforts to substitute for in-person learning is very low. As a result, in many countries the school closures led to large learning losses,” according to the report. “This is true even in countries with high internet penetration and higher levels of digital skills among the teaching force.”
The only segments of the population who aren’t seeing declines in educational performance are “richer” households, which offer wider reliable internet connectivity, access to devices, a place to study, availability of books and learning materials, and a conducive home environment.
“COVID-19 has devastated learning around the world, dramatically increasing the number of children living in Learning Poverty,” said Jaime Saavedra, Global Director for Education at the World Bank. “With 7 in 10 of today’s 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries now unable to read a simple text, political leaders and society must swiftly move to recover this generation’s future by ensuring learning recovery strategies and investments.”
Some of the data is based on modeling, but emerging data measuring actual learning levels of children in reopened schools is corroborating the predictions of large learning losses.
The report also warns of a “major shock to human capital accumulation and productivity” because of the loss of foundational learning. The inability for children to read or demonstrate basic proficiency in other skills may reduce their future productivity and their earnings once they enter the workforce. In one example, the report noted that after a drought in Zimbabwe reduced schooling back in the 1980s, children who were impacted saw their lifetime earnings decline by 14 percent.
The World Bank report states that without action to increase children’s proficiency in basic skills like reading, the current generation of students risk losing $21 trillion in lifetime earnings — the equivalent of 17 percent of today’s global GDP.
“The report shows what we feared,” said Alicia Herbert OBE, Director Education, Gender, Equality and Gender Envoy at Foreign Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO). “Even fewer children are now able to access a quality education, due to the impact of COVID-19 and school closures globally, especially the most marginalised.”
Officials estimate that more than 1.6 billion children in 188 countries suffered pandemic-related school closures. The World Bank has provided a new RAPID Framework to help accelerate the learning of children who have been impacted by school closures.
- Reach every child and keep them in school
- Assess learning levels regularly
- Prioritize teaching the fundamentals
- Increase the efficiency of instruction, including through catch-up learning
- Develop psychosocial health and well-being
The World Bank, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have partnered on this initiative and hope to highlight the need for countries to act urgently and decisively on helping children acquire foundational skills.
“Getting children back into the classroom is just the first step – but if we stop there, we will rob millions of children of the chance to reach their full potential. Every child has a right not only to be in school, but to learn in school, acquiring the basic skills that are the foundation for higher learning and higher income levels someday – in turn supporting equitable development and sustainable growth,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Director of Education. “We can’t let children’s learning become yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”