I wish to thank Dr. Dosunmu Awolowo Executive Director of Awolowo Foundation for inviting me to this event celebrating an epochal event that transformed our lives irrevocably.
As Ernie Flecther said: “Education is our greatest opportunity to give an irrevocable gift to the next generation.”
Education clearly exert powerful and long-lasting generational impact. The pre-determined conditions of an individual early in life especially those determined by the material conditions of parents, especially poverty, constitute a drag on their progress and tend to reduce their chances of opportunities or success or in life, including the impairment of basic rights and freedom.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the widening opportunity divide between the wealthiest and the poorest together with the increasing difficulty in attaining anticipated income convergence.
According to UNESCO, the COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 per cent of the world’s student population, up to 99 per cent in low and lower-middle income countries.
The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults – those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons – to continue their learning.
Learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress, not least in support of girls and young women’s educational access and retention. Some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) may drop out or not have access to school in 2021 year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone.
Among the most lasting impact is that the education system perpetuates and reproduces social inequalities.
A basic level of education is necessary for survival and the development of capabilities that would enable a person to live and work in dignity, improve the quality of their lives, make informed decisions and continue the learning process. The very foundation of this process is primary education. A primary school education is the foundation upon which other levels of education can be built. If a primary school education is lacking, that individual is starting life off with a shaky foundation. This is why cognizant of the deep-going impact of education, Chief Obafemi Awolowo on January 17th 1955 established Free Education in Western Nigeria. He rightly believed that everyone should be given the opportunity of a primary school education which would enable them to build a foundation that allows them to take care of themselves, their families and take control of their futures.
Among the various dimensions of social equity, educational equity is key. It has the tendency to perpetuate and reproduce social inequalities, because of its influence on earnings as well as health and longevity; education determines how an individual spends their adult life. To that extent, ensuring a fair and inclusive system, which affords all the benefits of education is vital for a more equitable society. Therefore, without quality basic education, the very foundation of the educational process, an individual’s life journey progresses on a rocky path. In Northern Nigeria, and not surprisingly the poorest areas of our country, 11 million children are out of school. Illiteracy, poverty, diseases all seem to be highly correlated with lack of education.
There are several channels by which the impact of the pandemic on education is transmitted.
1. Digital Divide: Limited Access to Technologies
Lack of access to radios, television, computers, internet, and data left many students unable to engage in remote learning. Many students don’t have electricity—not even a lamp to study.
Many children lack access to the internet, which is increasingly indispensable for education. Most students have no access to internet-enabled smartphones. Only a handful have access to mobile phones that can support calling and texting functionalities. Most schools do not offer online classes while some use YouTube and Google for research.
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We have Parents and families have no computer… Although the lessons are on video, the kids only listen to the audio. According to surveys sometimes they cannot connect because they do not always have enough data. A Nigerian mother said, “I had to upgrade [my daughter] to a smartphone so she can access online materials, but I am sometimes unable to pay for data from [my] civil servant salary A mother in Lagos, who lost her income after the university where she cleaned shut down due to the pandemic, explained that she could not afford online studies for her two secondary school-aged children. “Their teacher called me to tell me to buy a big phone [smartphone] for online teaching… I don’t have money to feed my family and I am struggling to make ends meet, how can I afford a phone and internet?”
2. Inter-Generational Education Inequalities
Parents and guardians with no to low levels of formal education have greater difficult supporting children with home learning.
A teacher in a low-income neighbourhood of Rabat, Morocco, said that after a few weeks of distance learning, “Maybe 10 per cent or less of the students are still following today. Those who do, most of the time have educated parents who tell them to keep following.” Khadija F. in Casablanca said “Neither me nor my husband can read or write, so we can’t help our daughters with school.”
3. Children Living in Rural Areas
Children living in rural areas are less likely to have resources to adapt and implement measures needed to continue education during school closures, including access to the internet and flexibility to shift school calendars, which have been adjusted to fit seasonal harvests.
4. Children Living in Extreme Poverty
A teacher in the informal settlement of Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya, explained how the pandemic exacerbated the already dire living conditions for many of her students: “They live with siblings and extended family relatives in small houses and lack basic items like food. Most of the parents to these children have lost their sources of livelihoods due to the pandemic making their already strained living conditions much worse.”
As fiscal pressures increase, the financing of education would also face major challenges, exacerbating massive pre-COVID-19 education funding gaps. On the other hand, this crisis has stimulated innovation within the education sector. We have seen innovative approaches in support of education and training continuity: from radio and television to take-home packages. Distance learning solutions were developed thanks to quick responses by governments and partners all over the world supporting education continuity. We need to do everything possible to stem the negative impact of the pandemic on education and subsequently human development. I end with a quote by Chief Awolowo:
“In order to attain to the goals of economic freedom and prosperity, Nigeria must do certain things as a matter of urgency and priority. It must provide free education (at all levels) and free health facilities for the masses of its citizens.”
Professor Oyeyinka is the Senior Special Adviser on Industrialisation to the President, African Development Bank.