Educating the world: pandemic lockdowns forced a ‘reset’ for schools

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There are concerns that millions of girls will never return to school after pandemic disruptions - Girls Education Challenge/ Paul Ninson
There are concerns that millions of girls will never return to school after pandemic disruptions - Girls Education Challenge/ Paul Ninson

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a “real reset” in efforts to ensure that all children around the world are able to go to school, according to Sierra Leone’s charismatic minister for education.

Speaking to the Telegraph ahead of a global education summit hosted in London by the UK and Kenya on Thursday, Dr David Moinina Sengeh said that while the pandemic has wrought havoc, it has also forced unprecedented innovation and “out of the box” thinking.

He is confident that the world may reach ambitious targets – set out by the United Nations in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – to achieve “inclusive and equitable quality education” for children worldwide by 2030.

“Before Covid, we would have definitely failed. And at the peak of Covid, it seemed like we’re all doomed… but I think Covid is the real reset,” Dr Sengeh said.

“It’s not good that Covid happened, but because of Covid and because all of our children were out of school, it woke us up… it forced everyone to take a look at themselves and we didn’t like what we saw.”

He added: “I think the world does have a really good chance of meeting the targets now, which is very different from where we were before Covid hit.”

Dr Sengeh – who, alongside his role as education minister, is Sierra Leone’s first chief innovation officer, a recording artist, clothing designer and inventor – is a vocal advocate for the power of technology as a “democratising” force.

The 34-year-old, who gained fame last year when he posted an image of himself with his baby strapped to his back as he got ready for a lockdown Zoom call, believes the pandemic has demonstrated both the need for “ed-tech”, and its power to combat inequalities and widen access to education.

In Sierra Leone – which built on its experiences of school closures during the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014 to 2016 – much of the worst-case scenario has been averted, said Dr Sengeh, with school attendance rebounding after five to seven months of closure during the pandemic.

Teachers have taught via the radio, while initiatives including a dictionary and tool to check exam results have been set up via text messaging – and so do not require the internet or a smartphone, a major barrier for millions. And many of the changes are here to stay.

“I think we’ll continue to move down the thing around technology, and think about how we teach differently,” said Dr Sengeh. “For example, we are not going to have enough teachers to teach all our children, it’s impossible, so how do we re-imagine the system?

“I think the world has to pause and think about how schools function and what we need from education. Because ultimately, the [SDG’s are] very clear – we have to think outside the box and do things differently to achieve the goals,” he said.

Many hope that Dr Sengeh’s optimism and enthusiasm will rub off on attendees of this week’s summit, which aims to raise $5 billion over five years for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) – an initiative to enable 175 million children in 90 lower and middle income countries can attend school.

The UK has been a strong supporter of the partnership, especially efforts to ensure girls around the world have 12 years of quality schooling – an issue Helen Grant, Boris Johnson's special envoy on girls' education, said is “close to our Prime Minister's heart”.

“[The pandemic] has been one of the biggest educational disruptors in our history affecting 1.6 billion children at the peak of the pandemic in 2020. Many of these children are girls; many of them will never return to school; many of them will never even start,” Ms Grant told the Telegraph.

The UK has pledged £430m to the GPE – its biggest ever contribution – and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has set out goals of getting 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by age 10 in low- and lower- middle-income countries by 2026.

A schoolgirl receives lessons via Whatsapp in the district of Port Bouet in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast - ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP
A schoolgirl receives lessons via Whatsapp in the district of Port Bouet in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast - ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP

However, many critics have pointed out the contradiction in the government hosting the summit at a time when swingeing cuts to the foreign aid budget have hit reproductive health and nutrition programmes in developing countries. These will have a huge impact on girls' education, because hungry children cannot learn and pregnant schoolgirls often leave school.

“The UK government has pledged to stand up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education, calling it one of the smartest investments we can make, yet it is taking away a key enabler that helps keep girls in school,” said Simon Cooke, chief executive of MSI Reproductive Choices.

Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia and co-chair of the GPE, told the Telegraph in May that she hoped the UK would restore its aid budget as soon as possible. A vain hope, as earlier this month MPs voted to keep the cuts in place.

Ms Grant said “the seismic impact of the pandemic" had meant the government had to make tough decisions. “But I think we've got to remember too, that we still have one of the largest aid budgets in the world… we will continue to be able to do an awful lot of really good work to move the dial on girls' education.”

In a briefing earlier this week Wendy Morton, minister for Europe and the Americas, highlighted the importance of educating girls, describing it as "one of the smartest investments we can make to lift people out of poverty, grow economies, create safer communities and build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic".

Alice Albright, chief executive of the GPE, said there had been great progress made in education over the last two decades but the pandemic had led to an “existential crisis”, particularly for the 20 million girls who may never return to school.

“But we can change this,” she said. “We are asking world leaders to raise your hand and pledge to fully funding GPE. This means developing country partners really leaning into domestic financing and continuing putting their own resources into education. This also means donor nations stepping up in the same way that the UK has,” she said.

However, Dr Sengeh said donor countries’ contributions were crucial.

“In Sierra Leone, a lot of the work that we are doing is thanks to donor funding - the UK has played a very critical role in our secondary education financing, whether that’s through textbooks, hygiene kits, provision of visual aids and for special needs. It’s very important,” he said.

Sierra Leone expanded its spending on education during the pandemic, said Dr Sengeh. “But all of that is still not going to be enough to do what we need to do.”

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