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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #041 – Souto, De Grauwe & Gagnon

By CEID Blogger, on 5 October 2020

Managing basic education in the aftermath of COVID-19: On education market dynamics and challenges to quality assurance systems

By Marcelo Souto Simão, Anton De Grauwe, and Amélie A. Gagnon

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced authorities worldwide to reevaluate the future of one of the most established social structures: formal school-based education. School closures imposed during confinement suddenly threw family life into disarray, with children at home while adults were either trying to telework or worrying about their income and job security. Distance learning, through a range of technological and non-technological means, enabled learning continuity during school closures – at least in some contexts and for some groups. Elsewhere, however, the inability of schools to adapt their services to the situation resulted in a complete halt of instructional activities. Some private schools fired teachers; others even closed down permanently as a response to families’ refusal or incapacity to pay school fees during lockdown. Now, the sanitary measures that are allowing schools to reopen also entail substantial changes to the daily organization of school and family routines. All this has led to questions about the long-term response of education systems to this crisis. In the face of prolonged periods of partial or total school closure, concerns have also been raised about how to catch up with learning losses and secure educational equity.

Centre stage on the agenda of educational planners and managers are issues such as protecting teachers’ welfare and the system’s capacity to accommodate students. Should bailout programmes come to the rescue of private schools? How would this affect existing inequalities? To what extent can today’s decisions, made to cope with immediate problems, lead to sustainable solutions in the longer term?

No one-size-fits-all response can be given to such complex questions and responses will to some extent depend on how the problem is framed. Defining the problem in terms of educational markets can be helpful to professionals directly involved in the organization and regulation of the supply of education. This is the approach we have chosen. Further on, we identify some expected changes in the demand for and supply of education. However, educational planners should continue to carefully track these changes. We have no alternative than to ‘learn while doing’, as such complex problems do not accept easy solutions.

Framing the problem through the lens of educational markets

Educational markets provide a useful perspective for looking at education policy problems. These markets operate under imperfect competition. Educational demand is defined by citizens’ heterogeneous expectations, interests, and preferences towards formal basic education, which are based on very incomplete information on how the education they receive today will benefit them in the future. Educational supply, on the other hand, is most frequently characterized by specialization along quality segments, often with a clear divide between private and public fee-free education: public supply tends to be less diverse and also less elastic than private supply, due, among other factors, to stronger regulation of the teacher workforce and less flexible standards of service delivery.

Families’ experiences with the education sector during school closures and subsequent reopening affect their perceptions of the quality of educational services, thereby reshaping citizens’ current and future choices. This explains the increased mobility of students between segments of educational supply that has been observed in many countries. Dynamic changes in educational supply are expected to follow, in order to accommodate this evolving demand. The characteristics of education systems in the aftermath of COVID-19 might be determined by suppliers’ capacity to meet citizens’ needs and expectations, while complying with new standards and regulations passed by public authorities, including requirements for preventive health measures. State intervention will certainly be needed to protect educational systems from perverse market dynamics and to prevent (further) deterioration of equity when it comes to realizing the universal right to education.

Tracking changes in the demand for education

On the demand side, we can expect to see students moving between types of providers in different directions. Three main trends can be anticipated. First, economic recession is accompanied in the short term by an increased demand for public, fee-free education (where families perceive public schools as a reliable enough service), or for less expensive private schooling. Second, the opposite: families disappointed with the inability of public schools to offer learning continuity turn to private providers, which are perceived as more reliable. Third, we see families that are unable to afford either direct or indirect costs of schooling – including opportunity costs, where students are learning instead of working – leading to more students dropping out of (or not enrolling in) formal school.

Designing adequate policy responses requires evaluating these trends in combination, within specific contexts, in order to build a picture of the possible outcomes. Priority should be given to the risk of exclusion from education, which calls for urgent action from educational authorities. This risk needs to be analysed through at least two intersecting dimensions: income and gender. Students from poorer families are generally more vulnerable to exclusion, a risk aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. Depending on the context, the exclusion risks for boys differ substantially from those faced by girls.

Monitoring innovations in educational supply

Turning to the supply side, private schools can adapt their production costs more easily – for instance by changing the profile or the number of teaching staff – and manage to accommodate the new demand. Governments find it harder to accommodate an increased demand for enrolment in public schools in the short term. The implementation of social distancing measures reduces the physical hosting capacity of both public and private schools. Innovative solutions such as rotating attendance, multiple school calendars, small-scale study groups, and generalizing blended learning need to be explored, bearing in mind that their effectiveness may vary across contexts. This will affect both the quantity and the quality of instruction, and puts emphasis on the capacity of teachers and schools to innovate. Governments should closely monitor this evolution and grant timely access to reliable information so that citizens can evaluate their options. Quality assurance is also paramount when it comes to ensuring that the official curriculum is respected, putting the regulation of private education under the spotlight.

The need to revisit quality assurance systems

Traditional quality assurance systems relying on school visits and classroom observations became irrelevant during school closures. The equity of public examinations has also been called into question where learning opportunities were unequal during shutdowns. As innovative instruction modalities are introduced to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19, modalities of quality assurance must also evolve.

Quality assurance systems should help align actors’ behaviours towards an education system’s objectives: ensuring that all citizens have the opportunity to learn to know, learn to do, learn to be, and learn to live together, as recognized by the Faure (1972) and Delors (1996) reports. Ideally, quality assurance examines both the process (often through supervision and inspection) and the results (through exams and assessments). In recent times, the latter has received more attention than the former. Now we have the chance to improve both areas.

Learning assessments: Improving use, scope, and modalities

Most education systems today have developed some capacity to assess students’ achievements in terms of learning to know and, to a lesser extent, learning to do, even if in some cases this reveals little more than that not much learning is actually taking place. It is worth exploring to what extent existing assessments can be further developed and adapted, not only to find out what students have learnt, but also to provide useful information for designing learning pathways that are adapted to individual situations. This is important for improving equity when individual learning routines are differently affected by changes in the daily organization of formal instruction. Adapting assessments would mean integrating national examinations and other learning assessments into wider, more flexible competence certification systems, and producing data that are useful for formative purposes at the individual level.

Educational authorities should take particular care both to ensure that learning assessments provide citizens with reliable and transparent information on students’ achievements, and to use data from these assessments to offer renewed learning opportunities to students falling behind.

The current situation also gives us the chance to refocus on the other very important learning objectives: learning to be and learning to live together. These aims are not frequently addressed by learning assessment systems, one reason being the difficulties – both technical and political – of translating them into unambiguous, unbiased, and comparable measures that can be captured through tests. Still, students themselves, their families and the wider community are very well placed to evaluate the social value of schooling. Here, processes are as or even more important than results: individuals might not be aware of what they have learnt, but they can certainly make informed judgements on their schooling experience.

Inspectors and supervisors, used to walking around schools and engaging with the educational community, are not unaware of this, yet many education systems do not use this first-hand knowledge to monitor and steer quality. One opportunity arising from the pandemic is the possibility for strengthened community monitoring and support via the increased involvement of parents through home schooling, for example, but formal inspection tools and practices should also be revisited. This could result in revamped approaches to school evaluation.

Engaging with the community on policy monitoring … and design

Stronger linkages with families and the wider community are necessary to monitor access to quality education in these turbulent times. Regular data collection processes, such as school censuses, have only a limited capacity to quickly identify which students are falling behind and thus to prevent them from dropping out. Changes to how teaching is organized will make it still harder to monitor individual cases.

One priority is to learn about the actual scope and effectiveness of distance and blended learning initiatives, in order to strengthen States’ capacities to regulate the provision of formal education. Students, parents, and the surrounding community can contribute to the improvement of this regulatory capacity. Indeed, during school closures, local education communities have been called upon to take the initiative and keep strengthening the social fabric that is normally created by daily in-school interactions. Educators have used social media, phones, networks of neighbours, community associations, and many other tools that, in some cases, have revealed the huge potential of social capital, much of which remains untapped.

Actors who are in direct contact with the school (local communities, parental organizations, and inspectors and supervisors) are well positioned to interpret local social dynamics. They can craft solutions that are specific to each context. For this, they need greater autonomy, albeit within a common framework that focuses on equity at the systemic level. Otherwise, pre-existing inequalities will deepen, and new ones will arise.

In a crisis, planning remains key: Reflect, prioritize, plan

Our key piece of advice for educational planners and policymakers is not to give in too quickly to pressures coming from well-organized interest groups. As in any crisis situation, the rules of thumb are: remain coolheaded, assess the situation, and address the most urgent needs, while looking for effective alternatives to tackle other necessities. Demands coming from well-organized groups might be legitimate, but other groups, with lesser capacity to voice their needs, may be in greater need of protection. State resources are scarce and, unfortunately for educators, may become even scarcer in the near future. Fair prioritization is more important than ever before.

Educational planners and policymakers should use the available information to better understand how the crisis and the sector’s response have affected social expectations for the formal education system, as well as citizens’ perceptions of public and private service providers. They should identify those individuals whose right to quality education is most threatened. They may need to negotiate and compromise with groups whose status has changed, and explore pathways to strengthen education systems’ resilience to crises in the future. This means revisiting regulatory frameworks and quality assurance systems to deal more effectively with diversity, in order to promote educational equity. Finally, we should all reaffirm that education is everybody’s business. We must open the doors for citizen engagement in the construction of the collective educational project.

Marcelo Souto Simão, Anton De Grauwe, and Amélie A. Gagnon work at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.


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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