This article 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. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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The COVID-19 crisis has hit the young generation particularly hard in multiple ways. Childhood and adolescence are stages of life with unique socialisation demands, and while education is the key to social mobility it is also where the pandemic has amplified pre-existing inequalities and developmental risks. We as a society owe it to young people from disadvantaged family backgrounds to provide them with the opportunity to lead a fulfilled and self-determined life. A high level of education does not just have a positive effect on the expected labour market situation and the associated income. It also promotes a variety of non-economic aspects of individual well-being, which in turn have a positive impact on society as a whole (health and life expectancy, civic engagement, political interest and participation, happiness, criminality etc.).
Education must therefore be understood as a central building block of overall social progress and receive appropriate financial backing. All over the world, politicians are attempting to counter the negative effects of the pandemic containment measures on education. They should, however, take the current situation as an opportunity to tackle the root of the problems and fundamentally improve the education system by shaping it more equitably. Of course, a sustainable education offensive can only be achieved with large investments. At the same time, it is very clear that hardly anything is more worthwhile than investing in the education of the youth, or in other words, investing in the future and progress of our societies.
School and the pandemic—a drama all of its own
Pandemic and policy responses have affected every pupil, but there are fundamental differences in how severely. Children and young people from financially disadvantaged homes, who already face greater difficulties, have suffered the most from the school closures and the switch to digital learning formats. When, at the beginning of the pandemic, schools as a place of social mixing, exchange and learning from each other were closed in almost all OECD countries, many children and young people were suddenly left to fend for themselves. Children and young people with immediate access to digital learning formats, and experience in using the technical devices required for this, had significantly better prerequisites for a successful transition. Moreover, parental income correlates with the possibilities to help one's own child with unresolved questions, or provide private tutoring. A similar picture emerges with regard to the learning environment, which is enormously important for successful learning processes: it makes a considerable difference whether one has a private room with a desk or lives together in a confined space and has to share a space.
In order to successfully compensate for lost lessons and individual disadvantages, and also to prevent existing learning gaps from widening and inequality from reproducing itself, the public sector should make available personnel and spatial resources for broad-based tutoring programmes as quickly as possible, which should be maintained in the aftermath of the pandemic. Irrespective of this, care ratios should generally be increased. On average across OECD countries, a child from a disadvantaged family is expected to take five generations to reach the average national income. To improve social mobility and socio-economic outcomes, inequalities in educational opportunities must be addressed.
Find more on Forum Network: We Are Failing the Solidarity Test on Global Vaccines by Jorge Moreira da Silva, Director of Development Co-operation, OECD
Educational choice must not fail due to financial hindrances
The need for greater funding commitments in education is by no means limited to the school sector. The consequences of the pandemic are felt across the entire spectrum of different educational pathways. A mixture of social isolation and financial problems, along with continued pressure to perform, has caused serious mental health problems for many young adults, turning what were supposed to be the best years of their lives into the worst. Many students depend on side jobs in order to finance their studies. These are almost always temporary contracts that have rarely been extended due to the pandemic. To make matters worse, students' employment relationships are mostly outside the protection of social security systems or national job retention schemes. Young people need the best possible support to achieve their educational goals. Policies must promote access to income support in times of crisis, so that the worry-free continuation of educational measures is ensured at all times. Again, however, the pandemic has simply made pre-existing problems more visible. In principle, educational aspirations should not be driven by socio-economic background, but much more by individual interests and abilities. Educational measures designed for full-time participation must therefore not only be free of charge, but also made contestable by the generous provision of public funds for every person with appropriate pre-qualifications.
A matter of willingness
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession have dramatically changed national economies and state budgets. Policymakers face particularly great challenges in view not only of the ongoing pandemic, but also regarding climate change and the associated need for far-reaching transformation processes. At the same time, the question of how to organise our societies in a more equal way must not be pushed aside. Giving everyone a fair chance to receive a quality education is a fundamental part of our social contract. Looking at the overall package of private, public and social returns on education that would result from the mentioned proposals in the long run, it becomes obvious that such investments would pay off.
Lear more about digitalisation and education in the OECD report Using Digital Technologies for Early Education during COVID-19
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