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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #023 – Edwards

By CEID Blogger, on 2 June 2020

When will the Bank learn that the necessary foundation to build back better education systems post-pandemic is social dialogue?

By David Edwards

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a convergence of crises in education due to both lengthy school closures and a looming economic depression. But as schools gradually re-open, many actors in the global education community are working to turn crisis into opportunity by fundamentally improving education systems.

The World Bank is one of many organisations currently publishing recommendations on this subject. However, the Bank’s advice is likely to be particularly influential at a time when many governments – especially in lower-income countries – are struggling to repay debts and in need of loans, and therefore warrants close attention.

The Bank recently published a  report that explores the impact of COVID-19’s “twin shocks” in education and the Bank’s suggested policy responses to both mitigate the damage and “build back better” education systems for the future. Detailed policy advice is given across three overlapping phases: coping; managing continuity; and improving and accelerating learning. With this new “knowledge product,” the Bank asserts its relevance in the education policy sphere by providing guidance for countries faced with the need to make rapid policy decisions to navigate the crisis.

The report provides detailed analysis of the impact of the pandemic on education. It’s a sobering read. In short, education budgets will be strained and international aid to support education efforts in low-income countries will be compromised. Both learning and access to education will suffer as so much learning time will have been lost and drop-outs will likely increase as a result. Educational inequalities will be exacerbated and teachers, especially those on precarious contracts, will be vulnerable. Much of this analysis is shared by Education International (EI), and this emerging new, difficult reality is something that teachers and their organizsations on the ground are having to navigate.

Unfortunately, the World Bank’s suggested roadmap to recovery – though rightfully calling for investing in education, prioritising equity and continuing to pay teachers – is nonetheless marred by some gaping omissions and problematic assumptions. It is particularly striking what is absent. The report is utterly silent on rights, social dialogue, and the role of teacher professionalism. Neither the right to education nor labour rights are mentioned once in the report. Meanwhile, the Bank’s solutions to build back better education systems show that their policy proposals are still held back by unchanged, faulty assumptions that the pandemic exposes. In this blog I will highlight two of them and provide EI’s alternative policy solutions, before finally make some suggestions for the Bank.

Faulty assumption 1: privatising education supports the achievement of SDG 4

For years the Bank has promoted the increased involvement of the private sector in education in both their country advice and global knowledge products. The Bank now mourns the fact that the private education market will likely be suppressed due to COVID-19. They note that both demand and supply will dwindle due to unaffordable fees and private schools (especially low-fee private schools) that are unable to ride out the storm will have to shut permanently.

This is worrying for teachers working in private schools and it is important to ensure that students do not lose access to education as a result. However, the Bank’s solution is misguided, based on their faulty assumptions and not the evidence. Their proposal is ‘government-funded school-fee waivers’ – basically artificially boosting the private market rather than taking the opportunity to consider the effectiveness and sustainability of a highly privatised education system.

Rather than advising governments to spend government resources to prop up for-profit education providers in order to stop an outflow of middle- and high-income students from private schools to public schools (p.35), why not focus on supporting governments to drastically improve their public provision to cater for all? After all, evidence shows that the best education systems are those where students of all backgrounds are educated together within well-resourced public systems, and that the involvement of middle- and high-income parents can drive improvements in public systems by holding governments accountable to provide quality education.

Building on their recognition in the Bank’s flagship report on global development (which in 2018 focused on education) that “there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools” (p.176), and their recent decision to stop directly funding for-profit K-12 education themselves (which María Ron Balsera wrote about for the CEID Blog), the Bank should take the opportunity to reconsider their assumption that privatised systems and market solutions should be promoted at all costs. For years, Education International has been pointing out the riskiness of leaving something as important as education to the market. Opening up to the private sector is a short-sighted solution to increasing access and equity (and in fact in many cases doesn’t even succeed in this regard, as for-profit schools tend to be concentrated in urban centres where the demand is higher, meaning they do not represent provision where there otherwise was none but are an option for those who can pay), and a poor solution for improving quality, as loosened regulations mean that many schools are substandard. The only way for SDG 4 to be achieved is by building back better, more sustainable public education systems with predictable financing and equitable quality provision. Supporting governments to achieve this should be the Bank’s focus.

Faulty assumption 2: teachers are merely a resource whose effectiveness is to be maximised; efficiency is key and labour rights are a barrier

The second deep-seated assumption that emerges in the Bank’s policy proposals for building back better education systems is that teachers are a resource, who if used effectively can be key to delivering quality outcomes, but who are not considered as professionals with rights, or partners in constructing solutions.

The report says that continuing to pay teachers is a priority – not because it is the right thing to do, or to compensate them for their long hours providing distance education, but to ‘provide fiscal stimulus’ (p. 22). For the Bank, paying teachers during the crisis is about efficiency and ensuring that as schools re-open there are experienced teachers ‘ready to go.’ (p. 22). There is no recognition that teachers are individuals who in many cases are working in unsafe conditions, who are doing their best to navigate new pedagogies for distance learning, who, if not paid may have no income and no way to feed their families.

The report notes that budget cuts can lead to both teacher salaries and contracts suffering (p. 15). It highlights that private and contract teachers will suffer the most, as some low-fee private schools typically ‘do not have the assets to sustain wages for teachers for more than a week’ (p. 38). Yet there is no reflection made or pause for thought on the Bank and other international finance institution’s promotion of precarious contracts, privatisation or austerity over many years, which has made teachers vulnerable.

Rather than calling for health and safety, social protection and respect for worker’s rights, the Bank simply notes that ‘teaching quality will suffer as the health crisis hits some teachers directly’ (p. 6). Indeed, as teachers in some countries continue to work on the frontlines or are forced back to work against their will, against the scientific guidance and without the proper measures in place for safe teaching and learning, teachers and education support personnel are dying. EI’s guidance for reopening schools  stresses the importance of guaranteeing worker safety and nurturing their wellbeing through counselling and support mechanisms.

Though the Bank’s report calls for improved and more training to help teachers to enhance student learning, teachers as usual are framed as inadequate and in need of improvement rather than professionals who deserve support. Instead of recognising the need to listen to teacher expertise on assessment, curriculum and pedagogy and to ensure professional autonomy in improved post-pandemic systems, the Bank calls for increased ‘efficiency of classroom instruction’ and ‘curriculum focusing’ (presumably implying narrowing the curriculum to get better outcomes on the Bank’s current central focus – literacy – meaning cutting out so-called non-core subjects such as arts, education for sustainable development and others).

To make meaningful policy recommendations, the Bank must first cast away its assumption that teachers are passive subjects, resources to be maximised. On the contrary, teachers must be understood as central to any plans to improve education systems. It is through meaningful social dialogue and teacher-backed reforms that strong systems are built – without teachers’ support, education reforms are merely facades built on shallow foundations.

A better way forward

The crisis makes it clearer than ever: the only way to achieve SDG 4 is through adequate public investment and sustainable reforms developed in collaboration with teachers and their unions

Governments seeking to ‘build back better’ in education after the crisis should find their own paths to recovery relevant to their national context, co-constructing restored and strengthened education systems along with teachers, parents, students and education communities. After more than two months of confinement parents the world over have realised firsthand about the difficult and important role of teachers and the critical necessity of public schools as centres of communities.  These parents are taxpayers and voters who in coming months will need to use what they have learned in the crisis to ensure adequate investments are made in educational infrastructure and personnel.

Meanwhile, the Bank would do well to reflect more deeply on the impact of the pandemic, which has showed so clearly the failure of privatised, deregulated and weakened public systems. It’s time the Bank recognises and learns from the policy failures of the past and instead promotes quality public services, protecting rights and engaging in meaningful social dialogue with workers.

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International, a federation of 32 million teachers and other educators affiliated with unions and associations in 173 countries globally.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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