In April 2020, the Luminos Fund convened the inaugural meeting of our new Advisory Board. Our Advisory Board features some of the brightest minds in international education, including former African Ministers of Education and the former Executive Director of UNICEF. Members include Carol Bellamy, Dr. Alex Eble, Susannah Hares, Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, George Werner, and Dr. Rebecca Winthrop. The meeting was planned first for Washington, DC, but our group convened online due to COVID-19.

At the meeting, Mubuso Zamchiya, Luminos Managing Director, began by offering remarks about today’s unprecedented leadership moment in global education. The full text is below:

An Unprecedented Leadership Moment in Global Education

Remarks to the Advisory Board by Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director, The Luminos Fund

Just about two months ago, on the 10th of February, an article was published in Mail & Guardian, a prominent South African newspaper. The title of the article was The urgency of rethinking education – for Africa and the World. The piece was authored by Audray Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, and Sahle-Work Zedwe, current President of Ethiopia. These two global leaders had a pressing message they desired to share.

One does not need to be super analytical, they said, to realize that as far as education goes, the world is off-track. They shared some alarming statistics. “UNESCO data shows that 258 million children are still not attending school, two-thirds of the 411 million children worldwide who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills are in school, and there are 750 million illiterate adults, two thirds of whom are women… The international community needs to act,” they urged, “and it needs to act now.”

The Director General of UNESCO and the President of Ethiopia were not only advocating for a closing of these learning and literacy gaps. They were also championing the idea that education needs some rethinking. A rethinking of what we learn and how we learn it. Especially in light of the present learning crisis and the fact that status quo education systems have not been able to meet the learning needs of all children, youth, and adults. Moreover, rapid change associated with globalization and technology advancement has shaped a learning crisis that exacerbates two major challenges identified by Rebecca Winthrop – namely skills inequality (wealthier kids getting a better education) and skills uncertainty (a disconnect between today’s education and the future of work). We need education models, argued Azoulay and Zedwe, that give young people the tools to address these challenges. “Today’s world,” they added, “is not only more interconnected, but also increasingly complex, uncertain, and fragile.”

And today, on April 15, 2020, we have firsthand experience on just how fragile the world truly is. In the 65 days since this article was published, our global society has been brought to its knees, and the global economy to a grinding halt. As countries work desperately to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the ratio of out-of-school children completely flip. It is no longer one-in-ten children who are not in school, but nine out of ten – an unbelievable 1.6 billion children. Thus, if we thought the world had a learning crisis in February, we now know that we are in the midst of a learning calamity.  

Some clever work by Harry Patrinos and others at the World Bank offers an interesting lens into three possible scenarios that may result in lower levels of learning. Particularly for children who before COVID-19 were already marginalized within education systems and were experiencing high levels of learning poverty. Firstly, as the pandemic continues, almost all children are likely to experience learning loss. Secondly, as time moves on, and schools remain closed the effect of socioeconomic inequalities will increase the percentage of low-performers, as lower-income families struggle to access remote learning resources for their children. Thirdly, as household income shocks put additional strain on families, many children may actually dropout of formal learning completely and never return to school even after the crisis.

Now, this is a calamity because – as Dzingai Mutumbuka often notes – prior to the Coronavirus, many education systems in the Global South had only the slimmest chance of fulfilling the expectations of Sustainable Development Goal 4. COVID-19 has effectively suffocated those hopes.

It is a calamity because – as George Werner has regularly warned – even in the better times pre-virus, African education systems had woefully inadequate data-collection infrastructure and capabilities. Thus, rendering education reform and decision-making both anchorless and rudderless.

It is a calamity because – as Susannah Hares has pointed out – COVID-19 is likely to affect the education outcomes of girls and boys in adverse and different ways. Keeping girls in school can be transformative, both for them and the next generation. Every additional year in school increases a girl’s future income generation by 10 to 20 percent. More educated mothers can better care for their children. Staying in school also reduces the potential for early marriage, and generally reduces incidences of sexual abuse, disease, and early pregnancy. During a pandemic, household income shocks can result in girls almost entirely forgoing traditional classroom learning activities to engage in household chores or income-generating pursuits with their parents and caregivers. Households with limited resources tend to send boys to school instead of girls. As Alex Eble’s research demonstrates, this is especially the case in communities where girls already face stereotype bias regarding their ability to learn.

It is a calamity because interruptions to learning can take years to recover from. For example, reports suggests that it took two years for children in New Orleans to recover lost learning after Hurricane Katrina, and sixteen years for children living in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

The pressure is therefore great upon education ministers and government delivery systems. What must they do to counteract the negative effects of Coronavirus on children’s learning?

Well, George Werner offers four lessons learned from Ebola that can apply to COVID-19. He argues that ministers should:

  • Firstly, fight the disease by providing age-appropriate information to help students and their families understand the pandemic and its risks.
  • Secondly, deploy alternative out-of-school and distance learning solutions as rapidly as possible to prevent dislocation and to keep children and parents engaged with the school system.
  • Thirdly, coordinate by tearing down the walls within government, and between government and the civil sector, so that children have access nutrition and healthcare, are protected from abuse, and can continue learning. 
  • Fourthly, when schools finally open, ministers should act on the opportunity to implement radical reforms that can dramatically improve education delivery.

Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares add that (i) ministers should be prepared for school closures to last months, not weeks; (ii) they should adapt their plans, but stick to their broad mission and key goals; (iii) they should protect their people, both by observing health and safety protocols, including social distancing in service delivery, but also by addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children and youth; (iv) they should communicate, motivate, and engage learners, parents, and educators in productive ways; and (v) they should collect evidence, and learn from the actions that they take. 

As governments and the international community respond to our new heightened learning calamity, Rebecca Winthrop identifies a selection of threats and opportunities. In terms of threats, she cautions that (i) distance learning practices may reinforce teaching and learning approaches that we already know do not work well; (ii) educators may not be adequately supported and may become overwhelmed; (iii) child protection may be harder to safeguard; (iv) learning inequality may increase significantly; and (v) poor experiences in education technology during the pandemic may make adoption of good solutions more difficult later.

However, the pandemic may also result in opportunities: (i) blended learning techniques may more broadly be tried and tested; (ii) teachers and schools may receive more respect, appreciation, and support for their important role in society; (iii) quality teaching and learning materials may be better curated and more widely used; (iv) teacher collaboration may grow and improve learning; and (v) the crisis may help us all better come together across historical boundaries.

Now, this cannon of insight and advice points to some important conclusions. In order to transform the existing learning calamity to a learning opportunity, governments, their non-government partners, and the international community must exhibit the type of leadership that empowers education systems to build back better. And building back better, as we have noted, requires laser focus on three important objectives:

  • Relief: ensuring that children, parents, educators, and local communities have what they need to survive the crisis.
  • Recovery: executing the plans, preparation, and processes that will enable children to get back to school safely and productively as soon as the pandemic ends.
  • Resilience: weaving innovation, shock-absorbency, and agility into the fabric of the education system so that it can ramp up and ramp down as needed while still delivering quality learning.

These three Rs are challenging expectations in any time. And they require special leadership. The type of leadership, like that of Dzingai Mutumbuka, who was able to sow the seeds of effective learning under the exposed trees of the African bush during the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. Seeds, which during the first ten years of Zimbabwean independence, sprouted into one of Africa’s best education systems, and one of the few to ever achieve universal primary enrollment.      

It requires leadership like that of Carol Bellamy, who during her tenure as Executive Director of UNICEF bravely prioritized and inspired the world to pursue five major objectives: (i) immunizing every child; (ii) getting all girls and boys into school; (iii) getting all schools to offer quality basic education; (iii) reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and its impact on young people; (iv) fighting for the protection of children from violence and exploitation; and (v) introducing early childhood programs in every country.  

This type of leadership certainly must manifest within government. But it is also needed within the non-government organizations that also play a key role in supporting and advancing children’s education. Organizations like the Luminos Fund. Thus, as we galvanize our hearts and minds and ready our hands and feet in response to the world’s learning crisis and calamity, we at the Luminos Fund could not be more encouraged. Encouraged because we are surrounded and supported by such an illustrious and accomplished Advisory Board. Leaders with the right knowledge, experience, and expertise to guide Luminos and help us make the greatest possible difference in such difficult times as these. Friends, it is our great delight and humble privilege to welcome you to the Luminos Fund Advisory Board. On behalf of our entire team and the children we serve, thank you for your support in our mission and work.

To learn more about our Advisory Board, click here.

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