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UNESCO: Poorest countries failed learners at risk during COVID-19

A UNESCO report identifies a worsening of inclusive education during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report estimates that about 40% of low and lower-middle-income countries have not supported disadvantaged learners during temporary school shutdown. 

Fewer than 10% of countries have laws that help ensure full inclusion in education, according to UNESCO’s 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report: Inclusion and Education – All Means All.

According to the United Nations, poverty and discrimination still prevent many people from accessing education. Two years ago, 260 million were not able to get an education. The figure will be higher now because of the coronavirus.

Asia focus

In East and Southeast Asia, 27% of countries did not target the marginalized in their education response resulting in a lack of inclusive education to COVID-19.

“To rise to the challenges of our time, a move towards more inclusive education is imperative”, said the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay.

“Rethinking the future of education is all the more important following the COVID-19 pandemic, which further widened and put a spotlight on inequalities. Failure to act will hinder the progress of societies.” 

Many times inclusive education during COVID-19 was determined by a student’s access to the internet for online learning.

In an interview, Maan al-Khatib, a professor at the Islamic University of Malaysia, described a student who had to travel 10-15 minutes from his home to find an internet connection.

“Another student in Sabah had to climb a tree to get a stable 3G connection,” he said.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of key factors for exclusion of learners in education systems worldwide including background, identity and ability. 

The 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report urges countries to focus on those left behind as schools reopen so as to foster more resilient and equal societies.

Inclusion and Education – All Means All (Credit: UNESCO)

Persistence of exclusion

The report monitors progress across 209 countries in achieving the education targets adopted by the UN Member States in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

It found that 258 million children and youth were entirely excluded from education, with poverty as the main obstacle to access. In low- and middle-income countries, adolescents from the richest 20% of all households were three times as likely to complete lower secondary school compared to those from the poorest homes.

Among those who did complete lower secondary education, students from the richest households were twice as likely to have basic reading and mathematics skills compared to those from the poorest households. 

Inequitable foundations

Alongside the report, a new website PEER (Profiles Enhancing Education Reviews) was launched. It presents information on laws and policies concerning inclusion in education for every country in the world. PEER shows that many countries still practice education segregation, which reinforces stereotyping, discrimination, and alienation. 

Laws in a quarter of all countries require children with disabilities to be educated in separate settings, rising to over 40% in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Asia. Displaced people, such as the Rohingya, were taught in parallel education systems. 

Parents’ discriminatory beliefs were found to form one barrier to inclusion: Some 15% of parents in Germany and 59% in Hong Kong, China, feared that children with disabilities disturbed others’ learning. 

Parents with vulnerable children also wished to send them to schools that ensure their wellbeing and respond to their needs. In Queensland, Australia, 37% of students in special schools had moved away from mainstream establishments.

The Report shows that education systems often fail to take learners’ special needs into account. Just 41 countries worldwide officially recognized sign language and, globally, schools were more eager to get internet access than to cater for learners with disabilities. 

Inclusive Education
Credit: UNESCO

Alienating learners 

When learners are inadequately represented in curricula and textbooks they can feel alienated. Girls and women only made up 44% of references in secondary school English language textbooks in Malaysia and Indonesia, 37% in Bangladesh and 24% in the province of Punjab in Pakistan. 

A quarter of teachers across 48 countries reported they wanted more training on teaching students with special needs. 

“COVID-19 has given us a real opportunity to think afresh about our education systems,” said Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report.

“But moving to a world that values and welcomes diversity won’t happen overnight. There is an obvious tension between teaching all children under the same roof and creating an environment where students learn best. But, COVID-19 has showed us that there is scope to do things differently, if we put our minds to it.”

LEARNTech Asia
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