It is an indicator of the depth of the crisis created by Covid that OECD’s Secretary General, Angel Gurria should take on the responsibility for launching this year’s edition of Education at a Glance. While the OECD describes the EAG as a flagship publication and it’s full of interesting comparative data, it doesn’t normally have the policy elan of PISA or TALIS. This year however the pandemic has changed everything. The EAG’s data could have been ditched since practically all of its data was gathered before the pandemic. Gurria, however, was determined to use the data as a warning about the perilous future facing education.
He described the situation in stark terms. All countries he said, however well prepared they were for the pandemic, now face a brutal economic recession. Countries must place education at the centre of economic revival planning if they are to have a hope of being successful. Indeed, he urged countries to renew their political commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly to the Education SDG, in order to underpin a global revival.
It was a clarion call to countries to respond the impact of Covid and restore optimism and hope to young people. It was also an implicit rebuttal to some of his member countries who are understood to be less than keen about continuing to fund the OECD’s efforts to help the UN and UNESCO in their efforts to evaluate progress in reaching the SDGs’ goals.
And, of course Gurria is right. Focussing on enhancing learning for the future is the only way that countries can equip themselves to recover from the impact of Covid. Covid-19 has stress tested all aspects of society, and education is no different. In describing the state of education systems just before Covid struck we also know where the fault lines were which the pandemic will have opened up.
So, the best way to use EAG data is to detect where the greatest disparities are- whether by country comparison, inequity of provision or by differences in students’ socio-economic background, gender or race.
It is obvious where the major stresses are. Distance learning has its limits and has clearly not compensated for school closure in many countries. Recent research, for example, by the NFER has found that the learning gap between rich and poor students has widened by 46% in one year. (Guardian 31 August) This has proved particularly obvious in the EAG’s main focus this year, Vocational and Educational Training (VET), where many students come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. Take VET courses for instance. In many of them practical and work-based engagement is essential. With institutional lockdown however, practical courses have been almost impossible to implement. Apprenticeships are heavily reliant on employers offering them.
However, as the EAG warns, employers may prioritise business recovery rather than appointing apprentices. The pandemic came at a time when VET already had a low policy profile and inadequate funding. In short, many VET training courses are disappearing, and apprenticeships are threatened at precisely the point when society’s need for VET trained workers is at its most acute.
Despite this, alongside teachers and doctors, VET trained workers have been essential to public services especially during the crisis and will be in future. As the EAG makes clear, VET must now be given equal ranking with schools and universities in a new post pandemic settlement for education. Education unions have a vital role in achieving this.
There are plenty of other examples where the Covid crisis has shown up both dangers and opportunities for education. EAG reports that the number of eighteen to twenty four year old students not in education, employment and training (NEETs) has dropped to its lowest since 2000. With the danger of a huge increase in unemployment in many countries, it is highly likely that NEET numbers will now exponentially increase. Again, education unions have a vital role in setting out a strategy for enhancing education and training for young people who have left statutory education.
In schools, despite the EAG continuing to reflect the OECD’s doubt about any correlation between class size and student achievement, the strains of ensuring students’ safe return to school have highlighted the fact that schools with historically large class sizes will find it that much harder to carry out full time return. Indeed, the EAG reports that 60% of countries are now organising shift systems for student attendance. As the EAG says itself, ‘countries with smaller class sizes will find it easier to comply with restrictions on social distancing’. In short, evidence that large class sizes contribute to teacher burnout has now been supplemented by the need to reduce class sizes for health reasons.
Another issue is that of time spent by teachers on instruction/teaching. The amount of teaching time has changed little year on year but the pandemic’s triggering of distance and blended learning and the phased return of students, may well place new and unpredicted demands on teachers which cannot be quantified using previous measures of instruction time. And the demands on teachers are not reflected in their pay/compensation. The fact that teachers’ actual salaries are between 80-94% of earnings of workers with equivalent qualifications in other sectors reflects the overall gender gap in pay and the fact that teachers’ pay continues to be inadequate.
There is course the issue of school and education institution funding. Unless measures are taken to protect education funding the brutal recession predicted by the OECD will affect it as much as other areas of government spending if not more. Measuring what is happening will be vital, but what is plain from the EAG is that using the Gross Domestic Product as a benchmark for measuring education spending of countries will be increasingly unreliable. GDPs are likely to reduce, in many cases significantly, and it will be quite possible for countries to demonstrate that they are spending more on education as a percentage of their GDPs when in fact education funding is being slashed.
These are just a few examples, for, as ever, Education at a Glance is a misnomer since it runs to just under 500 pages! However, throughout it there are pointers which show which parts of Education are threatened as a result of a Covid inspired recession. And the EAG also shows that, the despite his imminent retirement in May next year, the OECD’s Secretary General will not be leaving quietly.
Note: This blog was first published in Education Journal, Issue 423 (ISSN: 1364-4505).