By Fiona Carmichael & Christian Darko
Many education systems are facing challenges globally. According to the United Nations, around 166 countries have initiated some form of school closure since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. School closures could have devasting and possibly long-term learning loss effects as well as reducing human capital. These effects are likely to be accentuated for children and youth in less advanced countries. There is already considerable evidence indicating the extent to which gaps or breaks in schooling can lead to learning loss as well as negatively impact future labour market outcomes in less developed countries (see for instance, Akresh and de Walque, 2008; Guariso and Verpoorten, 2018; La Mattina, 2018; Cooper et al., 1996).
Most countries have now implemented nationwide lockdowns and are encouraging social distancing where possible. However, for many developing countries, lockdowns and social distancing may not be as effective compared with some advanced economies. In many advanced economies, the presence of a strong welfare system can ensure that even while on lockdown, individuals have access to income and other benefits. The same cannot be said of developing countries where in many instances the welfare system is limited or non-existent. Individuals simply have no choice but to continue working and putting their lives and families at risk. The current lockdowns and school closures have wider implications for families as well as, importantly, for children’s education and development.
Unlike in developed countries where there is widespread access to online learning and activities, in many developing countries, the existing infrastructure does not support this, with most African countries having limited access to internet. It is up to parents and families to make provisions for children’s’ education while schools remain closed. In richer households, parents may be able to provide computers and alternative learning activities for their children, however, poorer children do not have the same opportunities or access. Children from less wealthy backgrounds have access to fewer educational resources at home (Spaull, 2013) and rely heavily on educational resources at school available to support learning. Making learning available online is a difficult challenge for disadvantaged groups because of limited access to the internet and financial constraints. Regardless, some countries such as Ghana, have recently introduced virtual lessons for school children, a laudable initiative. However, the downside of this initiative is that, while the provision has been made, the service is only available on subscription TV. This means that only the relatively rich can access this service for their children. The poor (majority) are excluded. The lack of educational resources available to poorer children during this period of global health pandemic is therefore likely to have a large impact on their learning and academic progression.
While there is also evidence for the importance of parental engagement in children’s learning (Guryan et al 2008; Cooper, 2010) parents in developing countries cannot afford to stay home nor do they have the infrastructure necessary to facilitate home learning for their children. Given concerns for possible future income and job losses, poorer families may no longer be able to support and finance their children’s education and learning. Already low demand for education from poorer households (due to the opportunity cost of educating children) could therefore fall further. Parents may also be forced to take their children out of school when schools re-open to help with income generating activities and support with household chores.
There are also be implications for the wider education system, particularly regarding teacher availability post-pandemic. With most developing (as well as developed) economies channelling the bulk of their resources to health care provision, whether teachers will continue to be paid during this period of school closure remains uncertain. With existing logistic and financial challenges and tension between teachers and governments in some developing countries due to frequent delays in salary payment (leading to strike actions), the global pandemic and non-payment of salaries could lead to an exodus and search for alternative source of income.
To summarise, the costs of lockdown and school closures are magnified in developing countries. First, the longer-term costs of gaps in education are already considerable and likely to be unequally distributed. Second, limited social protection means that lockdown is very difficult for individuals and their families. Third, school closures are likely to impact most on the education of the poorest children leading to widening inequalities. Fourthly, when lockdown is lifted, some children in poorer families may not be able to return to education. Lastly, there are likely to be wider system effects leading to lower quality education overall.
Akresh, R., & De Walque, D. (2008). Armed conflict and schooling: Evidence from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The World Bank.
Bennell, P., & Akyeampong, K. (2007). Teacher motivation in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia (No. 71). London: DfID.
Cooper, C.E., (2010). Family poverty, school-based parental involvement, and policy-focused protective factors in kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25(4), pp.480-492.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of educational research, 66(3), 227-268.
Guariso, A., & Verpoorten, M. (2018). Armed conflict and schooling in Rwanda: Digging deeper. Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, 25(1).
Guryan, J., Hurst, E., & Kearney, M. (2008). Parental education and parental time with children. Journal of Economic perspectives, 22(3), 23-46.
 See Bennell & Akyeampong (2007) for a discussion on teacher motivation in sub-Saharan Africa.