As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Equity in Education: Unlocking Opportunities Throughout Life took place on 17 September 2021.
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Education has been immensely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as children worldwide struggle with school closures and many adults are faced with the necessary task of reskilling. The pandemic has been an alarm for more than just equal opportunities; it’s also a plea for greater equity in the distribution of respect and status. Governments must rethink the ways they approach education, what skills are deemed valuable and how dignified work is defined.
Factors such as gender and socio-economic status influence educational performance and future career outcomes. School closures have tended to last longer in low-income countries that have lower learning performance. Disadvantaged children have had less access to adequate tools for online learning, and often lack quiet study environments and support of their parents. Such inequalities in education have lasting effects that reinforce persisting education gaps around the world.
OECD member countries are putting forth plans to change course. The United States, for example, aims to invest billions of dollars to address disparities in resources and funding distribution in schools across the country; it also intends to create over 800 community-based schools to give disadvantaged communities the resources they need to learn. Korea has provided internet subscription fee subsidies and free device rentals, and has expanded educational content on television, to ensure no student is left behind as new outbreaks threaten plans to return to in-person schooling in the fall.
Read the report: The State of School Education: One Year into the COVID Pandemic
Children aren’t the only demographic experiencing an education equity crisis. Even before the pandemic, governments faced the challenge of upskilling workers into new technological areas where quality job growth has emerged. On average, around one in two adults in OECD countries was already disengaged from adult learning before the pandemic. During COVID-19, digital literacy, in particular, has proved critical, with remote job postings surging along with the demand for digital skills. Workers who already mastered these skills, or had the means to learn them, could benefit—but many workers who lacked such skills were left behind.
A shift toward lifelong learning should be at the fore of an equitable education recovery. Lifelong learning allows individuals of any age to acquire the skills and knowledge needed in changing labour markets, and it makes people—and their societies—more resilient during times of global and economic crises. Yet access to lifelong learning remains unequal: higher skilled workers are more likely to have undertaken training than lower skilled workers, and COVID-19 has only made this trend worse. Women are also more likely than men to engage in formal adult learning, while older people continue to receive less training than other population groups when they often need it most.
Read the publication: Ten Principles for Effective and Equitable Educational Recovery from COVID
Digitalisation is pushing many of these learning opportunities online, which poses challenges for some learners as well as for traditional vocational education providers. And whilst innovative competency-based “micro-credentials” represent promising and more accessible pathways, quality criteria and standards may prove needed to tame “the wild west of adult education”. To address their inconsistent returns and the pervasive outcome inequities for women and minorities that online credentialing has largely failed to solve, striking the right balance between accessibility, speed and flexibility, and the demands of both employers and learners will be essential.
The COVID-19 crisis is also an opportunity to rethink how vocational professions are viewed, and valued. Meritocracy may have become the linchpin of societal worth, but the OECD finds that social mobility has stalled. In what the philosopher Michael Sandel describes as “the Tyranny of Merit”, blue-collar jobs tend to be seen as less worthy than those requiring post-secondary degrees. From nurses providing critical care to grocery store clerks keeping society running during lockdowns, the pandemic has shed light on the disconnect between the contributions of essential workers to the common good and the wages, working conditions and societal recognition earned in return.
More on the Forum Network: The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge, Political editor & Bagehot columnist, The Economist
In Sandel’s words, “credentialism” has become the last acceptable prejudice in increasingly discrimination-averse societies, with college degrees too often regarded as a precondition for dignified work and social esteem. This diploma divide not only devaluates the contributions of those without higher education, but also makes little economic sense. As a society, we need to do more to ensure that people can develop their skills and professional prospects through company initiatives, and redefine job listings so that unrealistic—and often unnecessary—degree expectations do not preclude individuals from being able to contribute productively and advance professionally.
The OECD Forum virtual event Equity in Education: Unlocking Opportunities Throughout Life explored these topics, and asked the most pressing questions: how can we ensure that the COVID-19 crisis reshapes both our practices and attitudes toward education at all ages, for all career paths, and how can we create lasting solutions to ensure equity in education?
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