This article - first posted on October 21st 2021 - is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 billion children were locked out of their schools. This sudden disruption to the lives of so many young people was a real-world stress test, putting many of the existing challenges of education under even more intense scrutiny.

What can we learn from the impact of COVID-19 on education? What can policy makers do to tackle the many challenges ahead? And how can we build on what we have begun to understand about digital learning to meet the needs both of teachers and of pupils and students?

Education is fundamental to well-being and is a foundation of our collective resilience. The need to rethink and reimagine its role was already acute before the pandemic, in light of technological changes and the need to reskill for the transition to a more sustainable economy. Beyond providing a foundation of skills and critical thinking for young people and adults, it provides an essential community and place for shared and lived experiences.

It is not surprising, then, that Equity in Education, the latest of in our series of OECD Virtual Forum events, brought together a global audience of more than 1,000 people from more than 100 countries comprising policy makers and policy shapers to discuss these challenges and the next steps forward.

Reimagining the role of education systems

At the outset, Maureen McLaughlin, a Senior Advisor at the US Department of Education and Chair of the OECD Education Policy Committee, described education as a journey. Starting in early childhood, it continues into work and throughout life. We are increasingly hearing about the importance of lifelong learning.

We need to reinvest in our students, and we need to re-imagine education for the future, in order to make sure we are building a better system and not accepting inequities that were there before the pandemic.

– Maureen McLaughlin, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Education and Director of International Affairs, US Department of Education; Chair, OECD Education Policy Committee

“This year’s focus on equity couldn’t have come at a better time”, she said, pointing to how the pandemic has worsened existing inequities in the United States. Student and teacher well-being—the mental, emotional and social aspects of learning—have been particular areas of focus as schools have reopened. This is education in its most holistic sense, one that considers a big-picture, whole-person perspective.

Jim Frindert, a member of the OECD Youthwise youth advisory board, underlined the challenges many faced as learning shifted online and stayed there—for some, this lasted more than a year. “A mix of financial troubles, social isolation and pressure to perform have resulted in mental health issues distracting from education—changing university from best years of life to the worst”, he said. He recognised he was among the lucky ones: the pandemic had put the spotlight on those without the hardware and know-how for online learning, while cramped living spaces and lack of parental support for some made the challenges even more acute.

What would education systems look like if built from the ground up? Today’s challenge for education specialists, policy makers and the general public is how to reimagine the role of education, including the use of technology and how to make it accessible to all.

The United States is currently seeing investment in areas such as pre-kindergarten, community colleges and online learning, and job training and apprenticeships. However, with enrolment rates of three-to-five year-olds in pre-kindergarten varying hugely from 45% in North Dakota to 88% in Washington, DC, McLaughlin reminded us of the importance of avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach and of the need to delve deeper into local realities.

Do micro-credentials widen inequalities?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rapid switch to online learning—and a surge in take-up of “micro-credentials”, already a growing phenomenon among employers, employees and policy makers before COVID-19. Delivering online training through existing digital infrastructure, micro-credentials were coming to be seen as a panacea.

They provide a means for individuals to gain skills and fine-tune their profiles to meet the constantly shifting demands of the modern economy. From a policy perspective, they may offer a way to democratise access to skills, aligning with government objectives to promote social mobility.

Does the reality match the hype? According to James Robson, Deputy Director at the Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at the University of Oxford, the evidence is mixed. Often technical in nature, he believes the skills gained can be specific to particular employers and may have limited transferability or long-term utility. Micro-credentials place the choice (or burden) on to the individual, putting individuals who already have knowledge and cultural capital at an advantage to those who do not, risking the widening of existing social inequalities.

This echoes the increasingly prominent narrative of what has been variously called the “meritocracy trap” or the “tyranny of merit”, concepts coined by Daniel Markovits and Michael Sandel. According to Sandel, the age of globalisation brought the greatest benefits to the well credentialled but little to ordinary workers, placing greater economic and social value to those with better qualifications and ignoring those without—the source of the political and social instability of recent years. Ironically, in this telling, it is the well credentialled who are best placed to ensure they maintain their merit: meritocracy has become the new aristocracy.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to recognise the value and importance of nurses, supermarket staff and other essential workers, whose sometimes-precarious labour we realised was vital for our own subsistence. This calls for a greater recognition of skills learnt on-the-job, with a greater onus on employers to provide those skills as part of the broader social contract.

The alternative view is that, despite its flaws, meritocracy is better than any alternative at reconciling the two great tensions at the heart of modernity—“between efficiency and fairness on the one hand, and between moral equality and social differentiation on the other”. For Adrian Wooldridge, author of The Aristocracy of Talent, treating people as moral agents is the only moral way to encourage people to discover and develop their talents.

This debate is set to rage on.

Education as a leveller

According to the OECD Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, education is one of the primary ways governments can address the sources of inequity at its origin. However, its provision has not kept pace with the rapid technological changes of the past 20 years.

“The demands of education have changed and the risks of inequality have changed—but the supply of education has remained unchanged”, explained Schleicher. The disintermediation of information has brought both opportunities and challenges: Google can now provide 100,000 answers to your question, but there is no one to guide users on the accuracy of algorithmically-derived answers. “Almost half of 15-year-olds have difficulty distinguishing fact from opinion”, explained Schleicher—with those from disadvantaged backgrounds far more likely to be in this category.

COVID-19 has given us all a reality check. Lower-performing schools were more likely to close, exposing existing inequities and lack of access to resources, equipment and skills. Besides academic attainment, disadvantaged students are less likely to have a growth mindset in their approach to learning, are less likely to have a sense of belonging to a school and are at greater risk of bullying.

Anu Madgavakar, a Partner at the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of The future of work after COVID-19, agreed that the focus must be on inequality—including along gender lines—and how to support groups that have greater difficulty reskilling and upskilling. “It is urgent to prepare the workforce for a tsunami of transitions in terms of skills”, she said, pointing to the rapid adaption needed following the surge in digital adoption—and to the need for life-long support.

The importance of essential workers came to light during the pandemic, especially in its initial stages. Elizabeth Adams, President of European Federation of Nurses pointed out that more than 50% of healthcare professionals are nurses, the vast majority of whom are women—but few leadership positions in healthcare are female. Many struggle for recognition, even those with specialist postgraduate qualifications.

“Well prepared and educated nurses equate to lower patient mortality rates”, she explained. Nurses are a key pillar of resilience, and education is a key part of that. “We must recognise the uniqueness of human interaction in teaching and healthcare”.

When I look today at education, I see this tremendous push to go back to where we were pre-COVID. But what about the flexibility? What about the desire to experiment and create the future? We have to control our desire to just go back to the past.

– Soumitra Dutta, Professor of Management, Cornell University; Chair, Board of Directors, Global Business School Network (GBSN)

How can technology help?

Computer technology has always had the potential to make learning more adaptive and granular. According to Schleicher, those countries that have shown greater educational resilience during the pandemic include China, which is now the top-ranked country in terms digital reading literacy; Estonia, which already had in place a robust digitalisation strategy; and Poland, which is moving above the OECD average. Digital policies made the difference in each case. Portugal, meanwhile, provides a rare example of where disadvantaged children performed just as well as others because “inclusion” is a core part of its educational framework. What do these specific outcomes reveal?

“The behaviour of students from wealthy and poor backgrounds during the pandemic mirrored their behaviour before the pandemic”, said Schleicher, underlining how students’ existing access to, and knowledge of how to use, computer technology depends on their social background. Access is vital: policies must therefore be directed not only at infrastructure, but also at better access for poorer students. Eight out of ten governments stepped in during COVID-19 to provide support, but it took a pandemic to make this happen.

Why does this matter? First, there is a correlation between educational and employment outcomes. Second, there is a correlation between educational and social outcomes. Third, the more advanced your educational qualifications, the more likely you are to keep your job and salary. Therefore, a failure to close a widening gap in access to education will mean a wider gap in outcomes.

A cartoon-style visual, drawn live during this OECD Forum event by a scribe, summarises the key points and includes selected quotes from the speakers.

Soumitra Dutta, Professor of Management at Cornell University, feared the risk of failing to take the opportunity to upgrade the education system and make it fit for the 21st century environment. “We have gone through a phase of digital acceleration, but the real transformation has yet to come”, he said, explaining that adopting new technologies comes in three stages: substitution, diffusion and transformation. COVID-19 forced through the rapid adoption of technological solutions, therefore pushing through the substitution and diffusion of technology, but the final, vital step is still to be made. “The transformation that has to come has to build on what we have today—and has to imagine the future”, he said.

He pointed to the rigid, self-imposed systems of universities, which plough investment into buildings and requires students to fit into that model. The result is that classrooms are not prepared for hybrid learning. This is where equity comes in: almost 30% of New York City households do not have a broadband subscription, while almost 18% (1.5 million people) have neither Wi-Fi nor a mobile connection. This became a problem during the pandemic—and will be a problem again in the future unless the opportunity is taken to focus on the problem of access among poorer households.

“Reimagining education will require us to rethink the basic assumptions of education”, said Dutta. “We have to reconsider the persistent need for physical infrastructure and instead think about access”—about education as an activity and less as a place.

What next?

It is evident that we face immense challenges in education that the pandemic has only served to amplify and accelerate—particularly for more vulnerable groups in society—and worse employment and salary prospects for women despite often stronger educational attainment. Much effort will have to go into repairing “the broken social elevator” and investing in reskilling and upskilling, while instilling respect and dignity for all workers.

More funding is undoubtedly required. This does not automatically translate into better quality or more equitable outcomes. There is no magic bullet: as with all spending and investment decisions, there are opportunity costs, ceteris paribus. With a given investment pot, governments may choose to reduce class sizes or pay teaches more—but they may not be able to do both. The funding of education systems has become smarter in the past 10 years, shifting from a model of spreading money out equally to designing more intelligent funding structures to adapt to local needs.

So it is not just about money. It is also about vision, reimagining education systems, rethinking education equity and reconsidering the potential of technology. This will all be required in unison if we are to successfully tackle the challenges ahead in education. If ever there was a time to Recover, Imagine and Dare, it is now. And if ever there was an issue to help us get there, it is education.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills Future of Work Income Inequality Digital Inclusion Child Well-being

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