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Stepping up efforts to resolve the global learning crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19

Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Publication date 10.8.2021 10.02 | Published in English on 10.8.2021 at 10.10
News item

The COVID-19 pandemic has reversed progress in the global education goals by two decades. The crisis has dropped many children out of school and deteriorated the quality of education. Finnish development cooperation in the education sector tackles the global learning crisis by promoting the quality of education. Particular attention is paid to girls and to children and youth in the most vulnerable position.

Two Ethiopian children sitting by a table, listening to radio and writing in a notebook.
Yedidiya and Semretemedhin attending radio lessons, which is one of the Ethiopian Government’s initiatives to support studying at home while schools are closed across the country.

In the past decade, people started to pay more and more attention to deficient learning outcomes and poor quality teaching. The phenomenon was named a learning crisis. The global learning crisis has further exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, while approximately 483 million children were estimated to lack the minimum proficiency level in reading, the figure was expected to fall by about 20 million during 2020. However, contrary to what was anticipated, the number of children without the minimum proficiency level in reading increased by approximately 100 million in 2020.

Educational inequality has widened, because the pandemic has affected especially those who are already in a vulnerable position. In March 2021, the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF estimated that 168 million children who had previously attended school had been out of school for nearly an entire year. It is now feared that millions of children will drop outside education altogether.

In 2020, educational institutions were closed for 79 days on average, and up to 90 per cent of all students in the world had to be out of school. In high-income countries, schools were closed for approximately 53 days compared with 115 days and 88 days in middle-income and low-income countries respectively.

Many children have virtually been deprived of education. Over one third of the low-income and lower-middle-income countries, which provide distance teaching using such broadcast media as television or radio, reported that they had reached less than 50 per cent of their primary school students.

In June 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report entitled What’s Next? Lessons on Education Recovery: Findings from a Survey of Ministries of Education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schooling does not guarantee learning

Quality education is a human right that advances equality and non-discrimination and leads to higher income levels. According to the World Bank, approximately 90 per cent of primary school–age children were enrolled in school prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, being enrolled in school or going to school as such is not enough.

More than half of all primary school-age children in the world do not learn even the basics in reading, writing and counting. According to the World Development Report 2018 (WDR 2018), only about 15 per cent of children in pre-primary school reach the minimum competency in mathematics in low-income countries. Approximately 5 per cent of students achieve minimum proficiency in reading.

The key problems behind the learning crisis include large class sizes, teachers’ inadequate professional skills, and lack of such resources as textbooks.

Malnutrition is another factor that affects the ability to learn. While girls are menstruating, they may not go to school because of lack of proper toilets in school. Going to school may be difficult because of long distances or a disability. 

Quality education is one of the priorities of Finland’s development policy

Finland promotes the education goals especially by collaborating with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF and the European Union. In addition, Finland is an important bilateral partner in education sector projects in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nepal, the Palestinian Territory and Ukraine.

Finnish development cooperation in the education sector focuses on improving education systems and basic education as well as on promoting access to quality education at basic and secondary levels.

Finland’s support has been used, for example, to

  • help tens of thousands of Afghan women to reach basic literacy – less than a third of them can read
  • establish more than 400 inclusive education resource centres in Ethiopia
  • give education in children's own mother tongue in Mozambique, where only approximately 10 per cent of children speak the country's official language, Portuguese, when starting school
  • develop general education and curricula and teaching materials in Nepal
  • provide school transport for children in unsafe areas in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territory and refurbish 114 schools in Gaza after the 2014 war.

Additionally, Finland has supported the education sector in responding to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Finland pledged altogether EUR 8 million in additional contributions to Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and Global Partnership for Education (GPE), two global funds organising remote teaching and securing safe reopening of schools.

In 2020, additional contributions were granted, for example, to Nepal’s education sector for the implementation of an adaptation plan to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. In the Palestinian Territory, Finland's assistance was redirected to the provision of hygiene supplies in order to ensure that final exams in schools could be held in a safe and healthy manner.

Due to school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many children suffer from deficient nutrition because they have missed out on school meals. In his role as the World Food Programme (WFP) School Meals champion in 2021, Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari promotes global awareness and funding of school meals.

Sanna Lindgren

Unit for Communications on Sustainable Development and Trade 


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