In June 2022, the Government of India published its first national assessment of learning since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (the National Achievement Survey), showing that the learning competences of students in most states have declined over the past two years. The average learning proficiency rate for all classes and subjects fell from 48% in 2017 to 34% in 2021. This is a pattern that has been observed worldwide and gives an idea of the effect of school closures and the broader impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the education of children around the world.
There is concern that these effects threaten to reduce children’s potential for years to come. To help children catch up, we need to focus on where each child is now. We need to assess their level of learning and then focus classroom instruction on closing the gap between students’ desired and actual learning, focusing on fundamental topics, using approaches that tailor instruction to learning needs, through a longer systemic approach.
UNICEF is a co-host of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP) along with the World Bank and the UK Government. The GEEAP consists of 13 expert panelists from around the world, three of whom are from India; Nobel Laureate 2019 Professor Abhijit Banerjee, Yidan Prize Winner 2021 Dr. Rukmini Banerji and Professor Karthik Muralidharan have all contributed to the panels’ understanding of how we are strengthening global education systems.
Overall, the panel’s goal is to improve the use of evidence in educational policy decisions around the world. The GEEAP recently released a report – Prioritizing Learning While COVID-19: The Most Effective Ways to Keep Children Learning While and Post-Pandemic – which provides recommendations on how to respond to educational needs after Covid-19.
In June, members of GEEAP met the Indian ministerial delegation at the Education World Forum in London, an annual event where ministers from around the world gather to share their challenges and successes. They discussed how the report’s recommendations could contribute to the recovery of the education system in India after the impact of the pandemic’s disruption to normal school routines, including full and partial school closures for extended periods of time. Such disruptions have had a knock-on effect on students’ abilities.
Well-known report recommendations include:
- Adapt instruction to children’s learning needs and focus on key basic skills. It is critical to assess students’ learning levels when schools reopen. Targeted instruction tailored to a child’s learning level has proven to be cost-effective and has helped students catch up.
- Governments must ensure that teachers receive adequate support to help children learn. Interventions that provide teachers with carefully structured and simple pedagogical programs appear to be cost-effective ways to increase literacy and numeracy.
- Prioritize keeping schools and kindergartens fully open. The high educational, economic, social and mental health costs of school closures and the inadequacy of distance learning strategies as a substitute for face-to-face learning make it clear that school closures should be a last resort.
- Prioritize teachers for Covid-19 vaccination and use masks where necessary, and improve ventilation. The risk of transmission in schools can be greatly reduced when a combination of these mitigating measures is taken, but this should not be a condition for keeping schools open.
The expert panel also calls on governments to support parent involvement and leverage existing technology.
A proactive approach to evidence gathering around learning levels has already been taken in India, meaning there is knowledge on how best to respond to the impact of Covid-19 and teachers can focus on adapting instruction – to ensuring that their students are taught at the correct level so that they can recover from their learning loss. This is one of the recommendations in the GEEAP report and we discussed it extensively with policy makers, researchers and educators in Delhi in July.
The GEEAP recommendations already align with some of the objectives set out in the Indian National Education Policy (NEP), which was drafted in July 2020. Both show how we can and should use research and evidence to develop effective education policies.
Both the NEP and GEEAP recommendations focus on what is needed to transform learning levels in schools, in particular to acquire the reading and math skills that every student should acquire as a foundation for further study. The Indian activities of the World Bank and UNICEF in the country reflect the GEEAP recommendations and have a strong focus on basic learning. The GEEAP highlights the importance of adapting the way we teach to ensure we teach at the child’s level. This advice was based on evidence from around the world, including India.
There are local examples of how this works, such as community women being hired to teach basic literacy and math skills to children left behind in government schools, highlighting the importance of teaching assistants for improvements in learning and in targeted teaching approaches. This program increased the average test scores of all children in treatment schools.
More evidence is expected to be released by GEEAP in the future. The panel and its co-hosts will continue to work with local policy makers to share their findings and support the updating of evidence in education policy decisions.