The COVID-19 pandemic was an educational calamity. It disrupted schooling for more than 1.6 billion students. As recently as January 2022, more than 600 million schoolchildren were still experiencing full or partial school closures.
To “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is the fourth of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each of which Nature is examining as part of a series of weekly editorials. SDG 4 includes targets for all children to complete primary school, and to substantially increase the number of teachers with appropriate qualifications.
Even before the pandemic, the true extent of progress towards these targets was unclear. This is at least partly because research and data collection (and funding for both) are focused overwhelmingly on high-income countries. Whereas many of these nations have almost met the targets on access to education and education quality, most low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have a long road to travel — and it’s not clear how long, because the necessary data are incomplete or do not exist.
Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals
Gathering educational data in LMICs, and finding funding to do so, must be a priority if SDG 4 is to be achieved by the deadline of 2030. A 2019 report by the UN’s scientific and cultural organization, UNESCO, says that educational data collection would cost US$280 million annually. Currently, $148 million is available, most of which is spent by middle- and high-income countries. It should be possible to find the remaining $132 million — a relatively modest amount that would go a long way towards showing countries what they need to do to achieve SDG 4.
Before the pandemic, around nine in ten students worldwide were expected to complete primary education by 2030 (J. Friedman et al. Nature 580, 636–639; 2020), so it seemed this target was close to being reached. But some countries are much worse off than others. Researchers say one in four children in Africa are not finishing primary school — although the available data are patchy.
Of those children who complete their primary education, not all hit another SDG target: to achieve a minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of primary or lower secondary school. Globally, the percentage who reach this goal is increasing, albeit slowly. But again, most available data are from middle- and high-income countries. In many low-income countries, such as in some French-speaking African nations, only four out of ten children achieve the minimum proficiency, and the overall trend is negative.
It’s a similar story when assessing the effects of COVID-19. According to one meta-analysis, students worldwide lost, on average, one-third of a normal school year’s worth of learning, which hadn’t recovered by mid-2022 (B. A. Betthäuser et al. Nature Hum. Behav. 7, 375–385; 2023). However, of the nearly 300 estimates assessed, just two had South African sources (no data were available for the rest of Africa), a handful were from Latin America and none of the studies was from the Pacific Island nations or from the world’s two most populous countries — India and China.
COVID derailed learning for 1.6 billion students. Here’s how schools can help them catch up
The picture is similar for data on teacher training (needed to achieve the SDG target to substantially increase the numbers of qualified teachers) and on the target for lifelong learning opportunities for all. Half of the world’s nations do not know how many of their primary-school teachers are trained or qualified to teach. Data are available for only a few regions, and even for those LMICs for which reliable data exist, it’s a bleak picture. In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the proportion of teachers who are trained has been steadily declining since 2000.
Regional research networks have a crucial part to play in helping nations to plug data gaps and implement good practices according to local needs. For decades, European countries have benefited from peer learning, through which nations cooperate to share both data and experience. Other regions are also using this approach. Later this month, SUMMA — an educational research centre based in Santiago, Chile — will publish the final report of ‘The Teachers’ Voice’, a massive 2021 survey of 200,000 educators in 21 Latin American and Caribbean nations. This region experienced some of the longest school lockdowns in the world. The results will guide plans for recovering learning losses and bringing the most vulnerable children back to the classroom.
SUMMA, which is funded by the region’s governments as well as philanthropists, is also helping to overhaul teacher training at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, which trains teachers who work in schools in ten Caribbean nations. Educators are being taught methods backed by evidence, such as teaching students how to learn and assess their own progress — a skill known as metacognition. They are also coached in methods for preparing their students for a diverse classroom that is welcoming and inclusive to all. SUMMA’s director Javier González says that in 10 years, 22% of the teaching workforce in those countries will have gone through the programme. Organizations in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, from Eastern Europe to southeast Asia, are emulating this local-knowledge-sharing model.
Sharing evidence should also help nations to reassess legacy education policies. Many countries’ public education systems replaced teaching in national languages with that in English, French or Portuguese, usually during colonial times. This practice was often continued even after decolonization, as it was thought that children would be locked out of the global economy, unless they learnt in European languages. In countries across Africa, for example, 85% of students are taught in a language they do not speak at home. But we now know that children learn faster and better — and educators teach more effectively — in a language that children already understand well. This is not saying that other languages shouldn’t be taught, but that pedagogy is both more effective and more enjoyable in a familiar language (A. N. Kioko et al. Multiling. Educ. 4, 18; 2014).
The lack of progress across the SDGs is troubling, not least because we are failing to keep a promise made to children and young people now and in future generations. But the goal for education can be achieved. It needs more data at both local and regional levels, especially for LMICs. Equally, extra funding needs to be found. And researchers have a special role: providing data and scholarship, and advocating for evidence-based policies.