Countries urged to help children catch up on education lost during pandemic

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Children lost more than a third of a year’s worth of learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a worldwide study that shows gaps in skills and knowledge have persisted long after schools reopened.

Bastian Betthäuser, author of the report in science journal Nature Human Behaviour, warned that education authorities’ focus was “shifting away” from helping school-aged children recover lost knowledge and skills during the pandemic, highlighting a need for continued support for catch-up learning.

Academic subjects that depended most on teacher-led learning, such as mathematics, suffered the most when classes moved online, researchers said, with damaging consequences for individual career prospects, labour markets and overall inequality. The paper, which focused on 15 high- and middle-income countries and was published on Monday, added that the educational impact was more pronounced for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It’s not clear whether, or to what extent, learning deficits have been recovered. There’s a gap between what needs to happen and what is happening,” said Betthäuser.

Attention was moving away from helping children catch up on lost learning, as governments moved their focus to other issues such as the cost of living crisis caused by soaring food and energy costs, he added.

“My worry is that government programmes that have been set up — with very generous funding in some countries — will phase out soon, or have already [been phased out].”

The paper collated 42 studies and reported that 95 per cent of the world’s school-age pupils were affected by school closures during the pandemic. Countries analysed included Brazil, Colombia, Germany, South Africa, Spain, the US and UK, with the report noting that some pupils had been affected by irregular teaching for more than two-and-a-half years.

It found learning “slowed substantially” during the pandemic, with schoolchildren losing the equivalent of 35 per cent of a year’s worth of learning. “Learning deficits opened up early in the pandemic and have neither closed nor substantially widened since then,” the report added.

Learning deficits were higher in maths, potentially because the subject depended more on teacher-led formal instruction than other subjects such as literacy, the researchers concluded.

Governments have spent billions on funding schemes to support children to catch up on lessons missed during the pandemic, such as after-school programmes and additional lessons during holiday periods.

However, the World Bank warned last year that less than half of countries were operating learning recovery programmes at the scale needed to help children catch up.

Betthäuser said missed learning had affected the development of skills that were crucial to the needs of the labour force. “Learning deficits are likely to have knock-on effects on students’ future trajectories,” he said.

The report backs up evidence from researchers that educational inequality has widened since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Last month, the Education Policy Institute think-tank found that in England the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers increased at the fastest rate on record in 2021, after a year of periodic closures. Children living in persistent poverty were two years behind their wealthier peers, it added.

“There is much more the government needs to do to support schools in reducing learning losses — particularly schools in poorer areas,” said David Laws, executive chair of EPI.

Source: Financial Times

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