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The True Cost of Lost Learning

Rob May, CEO ABE Global

Part One of a Series on Covid-19, Learning Technology and Global Education Responses:

The social and economic damage of lost learning could come to define a generation. Despite the scale and growth of the learning technology market in recent years, technology-enabled teaching strategies proved inadequate overall at engaging learners. This highlights a significant deficit in the broader capabilities required to run education remotely. The inconsistent results of a technology-enabled approach also underlined shortcomings in government ambitions, efforts and funding to reform the structure of public learning and exams systems.

Some countries proactively ‘massified’ access to learning and assessment technology by centrally co-ordinating content and development sprints. Others simply closed down.

This series explores the reactions of different countries and suggests that policy makers must now aggregate the best practice that emerged during lockdowns into a collective change programme and a robust plan to deal with future school closures.

Measuring the impact of lost learning

The shutdown of education systems in 2020 is likely to create a global skills deficit which depresses income earning potential, slows national economic recovery, and subtracts from the overall welfare of society for many years to come, possibly for the remainder of this century.

The total impact on the physical and mental health of millions of children who may remain permanently excluded from education is incalculable. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, worldwide school closures forced 1.5 billion students, or 87% of the world’s learning population, out of their classrooms. In 2019, only 2% of the world’s learning activity was digitalised.

There is little doubt that COVID-19 was an unprecedented public health emergency which required urgent focus on the immediate logistical challenge of reducing the viral transmission to save lives. But as school and college closures continued throughout 2020 and 2021, considerable evidence has started to emerge of unrecoverable learning losses.

Why did this happen? This may sound like a churlish question to ask in retrospect, given the severity of the crisis. But, business continuity planning is supposedly a cornerstone of public governance and regulation in most developed countries. Institutions which provide essential services to the public (including education) are drilled on mitigating natural disasters, IT breakdowns, terrorist attacks, and so on, and must prove that they have the capability to continue providing reliable services. Secondly, the technology now available to governments and institutions offers incredible sophistication and reach.

Before exploring why the technology alone wasn’t enough to offer a seamless educational experience, this series starts by looking at the scale of lost learning in real terms.

The real cost of closing classrooms

In the throes of the global public health crisis, short-term responses focused on imposing restrictions designed to reduce the spread of the virus. The long-term economic consequences of lost learning were largely unconsidered and are still subject to controversial debate. This is because it is difficult the reliably measure the full impact of school closures, particularly as exit strategies vary considerably between sub-state regions and countries.

We can however extrapolate the potential economic losses based on an analysis of data from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), which surveyed numeracy and literacy skills of a representative sample of the population aged between 16-65 across 32 countries between 2011-2015, and correlated assessment scores with longitudinal labour market income information to estimate the impact of skills differences on earning potential over a lifetime. Hanushek and Woessmann (2020) have modelled this data to reveal that a loss of one third of a school year represents a loss of potential income of between 2.5% – 4% over the student’s adult working life.

The best-case scenario assumes that schools would normalise quickly and that protracted closures, including sending whole year groups home intermittently, are avoided. If not, a combined full year of lost learning could affect individual income over a lifetime by 7.7%

Placed in the context of actual earnings, in 2018 the average lifetime earnings of men in the United Kingdom were £643,000, and for women, average lifetime earnings were £380,000. At present values, a loss of 4% equates to £25,720 for men and £15,200 for women. Of course, these figures fail to account for creative destruction in the labour market due to automation, job substitution and new job creation, but at a national level, it is obvious that the current trajectory of lost earning will depress future GDP significantly. Today’s cohorts of students will make up around 25% to 30% of the workforce in 10-15 years’ time.

With record amounts of public debt piling up and a post-pandemic imperative to reimagine the technological processes that underpin the production and supply of goods and services, a less skilled and less wealthy workforce is a major downstream crisis.

Why global losses could be catastrophic

The OECD data relates mainly to developed countries, and therefore only tells part of the story. School closures could turn back the clock on gains made in reducing global poverty and promoting gender equality. The problem is, the triumphant reporting of gains in poverty reduction in recent years are highly subjective and problematic to begin with.

According to the World Bank, over the last 15 years, 802 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. The World Bank defines the international poverty line (IPL) as living on less than $1.90 per day. But the IPL is explicitly designed to reflect a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any reasonable conception of life with dignity. Deeper analysis of World Bank statistics show that:

Before Covid-19 77% of the world’s population were financially insecure, existing on less than $10 per day

Adjusting for Purchasing Power Parity, this means that 77% of the world’s population were already struggling to access food, housing and other essentials of human security. What’s more, this chilling statistic has remained largely static for three decades.

For many households across the global south, lockdowns have seen incomes and savings decimated overnight. In most developing countries public school is not free, the costs are borne by the students’ families. Households which struggled to afford school and college fees no longer can, and where they find that they can keep going, it is highly likely that boy’s education will be prioritised.

Research from the Malala Fund suggests that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact for marginalised girls, estimating that:

more than 20 million secondary school-age girls could find themselves permanently out of school after the lockdowns have passed.

Although predictions on the social impact of lost learning are difficult, as a reference point we could look at the effect of isolated closures connected to previous epidemics. UNESCO reported an increase in adolescent pregnancies by up to 65% in Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Most girls attributed this directly to being outside the protective environment provided by schools.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) suggested in April 2020 that as many as 13 million more child marriages could occur over the next 10 years.  As the pandemic has worsened poverty and disrupted food insecurity, many girls are prioritising marriage over education.

Educating girls is vitally important for breaking the cycle of gender exploitation, including the eradication of sexual and physical abuse, child marriages and a lifetime of domestic servitude. The World Bank estimates that ending child marriage and early childbearing could dramatically reduce unsustainable population growth. Concerted efforts by governments and civil society organisations had reduced the number of out-of-school primary school age girls from 65 million globally in 1996 to 31.6 million in 2014. Before COVID-19 global efforts in this direction suggested gains in well-being for populations could reach more than $500 billion annually by 2030. The public spending benefits of lower under-five mortality rates and malnutrition were estimated to reach more than $90 billion annually.

It is worth noting that the UK is showing real global leadership in tackling girls education.

Last week the Prime Minister confirmed a UK pledge of £430 million to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), an uplift of 15% from previous contributions.

Through programmes such as SPHEIR and Skills for Prosperity, the UK is helping to fund political inclusion and economic empowerment for girls and young women.

Educated girls are safer, healthier, more financially secure, marry later, have fewer children and are more likely to be involved in democratic processes, values which are then transmitted to subsequent generations.

Fortunately, political leaders in most countries are recognising the damage of lost learning and many have started to prioritise the re-opening of public education systems before re-opening other parts of the economy. The protective, pastoral environment of schools is important for the social and psychological development of young people.

Nonetheless, returning to class was non-negotiable as it emerged that the only effective way to ensure complete continuity of education and engagement has been to send children back into bricks and mortar settings, where they and their teachers are more likely to become vectors for the virus.

We have to ask, in a world with a $6.5 trillion global education market, which has had access to leading edge learning technology for more than a decade, why has remote delivery proved so ineffectual?

Rob May, CEO ABE Global, Examination Body 

Follow the rest of this series on FE News

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