Global moves to promote equity


01 September 2020

Health systems were first to feel the pressure of COVID-19 in late February as they dealt with extreme demand. Next, it was education.

With schools closed, educators were called on to switch their focus to help students learn at home. That has had varying degrees of success in wealthy nations such as Australia, let alone in poorer developing nations.

Governments were not prepared to deal with an emergency on the scale of COVID-19, says Susan Hopgood, AEU federal secretary and president of Education International (EI), the global federation of education unions.

“The political commitment to public services has been very low in very many countries. As a result, we’ve had neglect, underfunding and the privatisation of public services. So education systems were just not ready for a global crisis,” she says.

The countries struggling most to find the health resources to fight the pandemic were likely to be those also falling behind in their efforts to educate children, says Hopgood. These countries were vulnerable to predatory commercial players who signed privatisation deals with cash-strapped governments to take over education systems. But, in a major win for education activists fighting against privatisation, the World Bank recently agreed to freeze investments in for-profit schools.

The effects of the crisis

The immediate effects of the crisis felt by educators around the globe included health and safety concerns, particularly in poor and overcrowded schools and the added workload of preparing materials or online learning for students at home. Some part-time and temporary teachers also lost their jobs.

An EI global survey found that students from rural and disadvantaged communities were being left behind as a result of the pandemic.

“Our members are telling us that girls, refugees, migrants, students with disabilities, students from low-income families are most at risk,” says Hopgood. “The inequalities that already exist are being worsened by the crisis and the lack of resources to deal with it.”

Teachers themselves are also struggling. “There is a huge shortage of professionally trained teachers across the globe. So we have teachers who are under-trained, under-qualified and don’t have those skills to provide remote education at all,” says Hopgood.

But COVID-19 has also demonstrated the dedication and commitment of teachers to their students, she says.

“It’s been a story about resilience and determination by the education workforce and community to respond as best we can to this and to ensure that we come out the other end with as few impacts as possible.”

Getting back to school

Helping schools, educators and students to get back on track as schools begin to reopen is now a priority and EI has put together a five-point guide for governments to assist with a smooth return. Guidelines cover health and safety, consultation with educators and equity for students and educators.

EI general secretary David Edwards says governments must ensure education unions are at the table in every part of the process to help assess student needs and staff workloads, and health and safety concerns.

Equity must be a top priority, he says. “We know that the impact is not equal, and that vulnerable students and education workers have been the most affected."

And governments must trust the professionalism of educators. “We have seen a deep support for our profession and appreciation for what we do. We want to make sure that the authorities engage with educators to determine and assess the impact of the school closings and that any framework for transitioning back to onsite education is built on trust in the professionalism and pedagogical practice of the education workforce,” Edwards says.

Meanwhile, EI has joined a UNESCO-initiated global education coalition that has been helping countries mobilise resources to support learning at home and now, to help with the return to school.

“Never before have we witnessed educational disruption on such a scale,” says UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “This coalition is a call for coordinated and innovative action to unlock solutions that will not only support learners and educators now, but through the recovery process, with a principle focus on inclusion and equity.”

Hopgood says EI’s commitment and the commitment of educators across the globe is to continue working towards the right to free quality education for every child. “Whatever it takes, we mustn’t leave a single child behind, so we have to work to overcome that as a global community.”

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2020