Posted September 16, 2022, by Learning and Education2030+ (LE2030+) Networking Group Secretariat
[13 minutes read]
The state of education
As is widely understood but warrants repeating, the COVID-19 pandemic has constituted an unprecedented, multifaceted global crisis, causing tremendous shocks everywhere to health, education, the economy, and many other sectors. In terms of education, the pandemic’s detrimental effects on progress worldwide towards achieving, by 2030, Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) – the ‘Education SDG’ – is unmistakable, and it foretells long-term costs to human capital accumulation, development prospects, and general societal welfare. Perhaps most concerning, the pandemic’s impact is already disproportionately felt by society’s most vulnerable and marginalized members. Pandemic-caused school closures have severely disrupted the education and learning of more than 800 million children in Asia-Pacific alone, and severely impacted the delivery of equitable quality education, the achievement of projected learning outcomes, the quality of student engagement, and the overall health and well-being of learners, especially the most vulnerable – namely the already economically challenged, disabled, or otherwise marginalized (UNESCO and UNICEF, 2021a).
While the duration of full school closures over the last two years has varied considerably across the region, indeed ranging from several weeks in some countries to well over a year in others, overall an estimated 1.1 trillion hours of in-person learning have been lost in Asia and the Pacific (UNESCO, UNICEF, and World Bank, 2022).
Considerable and laudable efforts were made by most countries to ensure learning continuity throughout the crisis, yet many learners have effectively disengaged with their education, and an estimated 10.7 million are now at risk of not returning to community care centres (CCCs), grade schools, or universities once such institutions reopen (UNESCO and UNICEF, 2022).
Pandemic-related school closures, as well as the inadequate reach and quality of remote learning, have thus caused learning loss at unprecedented levels. Students in developing Asian countries, for instance, may have lost nearly 30 per cent of learning-adjusted years of schooling, according to early estimates of the Asian Development Bank (ADB, 2021).
In this challenging context, it is important to recall that the pandemic is only partially to blame for the problem, as it has acted largely in exacerbating a pre-existing learning crisis in the region, considerably worsening long-standing inequalities. The learning crisis arises primarily from poor-quality education and other longstanding inequities that contribute to low learning levels, wherein students, even when they complete a given level of education, may not have acquired that level’s intended educational proficiencies, starting with foundational literacy and numeracy skills. To grasp the magnitude of the crisis, prior to the pandemic approximately 27 million Asia-Pacific children and adolescents were reported to be functionally illiterate (UNESCO and UNICEF, 2021b). Despite recently improved enrolment rates and improved learner completion of their early grades, in half of the region’s countries, 50 per cent of children in 2019 – just as the pandemic was gaining traction – remained unable to read and understand a simple sentence by age 10 (UNESCO and UNICEF, 2021b).
If the pandemic has thus exacerbated a pre-existing learning crisis, it has also exposed pre-existing weaknesses and the overall fragility of the region’s education systems. This has pointed to an urgent need for all education stakeholders to comprehensively rethink and transform education throughout Asia and the Pacific, and to do so urgently.
While we continue to gain insight into the immediate impact of COVID-19 on learning and equity, it will be years before we are able to comprehend its full and extended impact, not only at the individual level, but in reference to broader developmental prospects for the region, such as the general welfare and economic outlook of many societies.
At the moment, however, this much is clear: we must act urgently and invest significant effort and resources into mitigating the impact of the pandemic in both the short and medium terms. At the same time, it is imperative that we address the root causes of the learning crisis, as well as the persistent inequities in education, by extensively and creatively transforming our education systems. If we do not act now, there is a risk of further and perhaps permanent derailment of decades of hard-gained progress towards achieving education for all. ‘Building back’ means building back better and more equal, and building back to transform.
Commitment of the Asia-Pacific region
Against this concerning backdrop, the 2nd Asia-Pacific Regional Education Minister’s Conference (APREMC-II) was organized in early June 2022 by the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, and the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA). The three-day event, which transpired both in-person and online in Bangkok, was co-hosted by the Royal Thai Government and the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) of Thailand, with support provided by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology (MEXT) of Japan.
APREMC-II was organized at a critical moment, given that by mid 2022, most countries in the region had recently reopened their schools, and there was an urgent need to ensure that all learners would return to school and recover lost learning. At the same time, regional governments and education stakeholders were initiating a process of rethinking education and transforming their education systems.
The Conference resulted in the Bangkok Statement 2022, which documented the collective commitment of Ministers of Education from UNESCO Member States and related education stakeholders in the region to jointly and urgently address both the pre-existing learning crisis and the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, principally via two priority areas of action: 1) Safe school reopening, learning recovery and continuity of learning; and 2) Transforming education and education systems.
The first priority area of action focuses on safely reopening all schools and to keeping them open, and to ensuring the re-enrolment of all learners, as well as attending to rapid learning recovery and learners’ general well-being. Furthermore, it was agreed that the fundamental focus of this action should be on reaching the most marginalized and vulnerable learners in the region, which have been almost without exception the most affected by school closures, and which remained the most at risk of never returning to their reopened classrooms.
Learning recovery also includes governments’ putting in place assessment processes to identify individual student learning levels and socio-emotional needs, and deploying relevant catch-up and remediation measures. These measures should go hand in hand with putting in place long-term strategies to continually address the learning crisis.
The second priority area of action speaks to the need to transform education and its systems to tackle educational inequalities and the learning crisis; to build into education systems adaptive and resilient mechanisms; and to contribute to peaceful, inclusive and sustainable futures of humanity and the planet.
A key message is that education transformation requires a holistic system reform that entails the regular monitoring, review and transformation of its interlinked components. In the Bangkok Statement 2022, ministers and education stakeholders committed to reflect on, act on, and collaborate with one another in the following primary areas:
- Equity and inclusion and gender equality;
- Quality and relevance of education;
- Learning, skills for employment, and sustainable development;
- Teachers and capacity development;
- Digital transformation;
- Better governance, and improved and more effective financing.
The Bangkok Statement confirmed that as the world emerges from the pandemic, returning to the ‘normal’ we knew is neither possible nor desirable, and it acknowledged the need for a rethinking and deep transformation of education towards peaceful, inclusive and sustainable futures of humanity and the planet, as well as to build more resilient, flexible, inclusive and relevant education systems.
Education transformation must holistically address the needs of all learners, from early childhood to adulthood, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized; to accomplish this, integrated, multi-sectoral collaboration is essential.
The Bangkok Statement confirmed that we cannot talk about education in isolation; rather we must always take into account broader challenges, including the current economic crisis, deepening poverty and social inequities, and environmental degradation and climate change. ‘Resiliency’ has become the key word in recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, and education holds that key.
The Bangkok Statement additionally confirmed that education is a cornerstone of both social and economic recovery, as well as our achieving the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which has been seriously jeopardized by the far-reaching pandemic.
Thus charting the way forward and creating regional momentum for action and cooperation for learning recovery and education transformation, the Bangkok Statement is not an end in itself, but a beginning. Now action must be taken by all Asia-Pacific countries to meet its critically important commitments.
The year of education
While the years 2020 and 2021 will be remembered as comprising a time when countries were, during numerous ‘lockdowns’ and school closures, making enormous efforts to ensure learning continuity through distance education and related measures, 2022 has already seen most learners return to school, while numerous countries in the region are already putting in place various mechanisms for learning recovery and transforming their education systems.
The year 2022 also marks a historic moment for education. In response to the global education, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has convened the Transforming Education Summit (TES) as part of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly in mid September. The Summit identifies solutions and mobilizes political will at the highest levels to recover learning and initiate the comprehensive transformation of education globally. More than 25 countries from the Asia-Pacific region are already developing national commitment statements to this end, in part with the Bangkok Statement 2022 acting as an important regional precursor and catalyst. Through its commitments at national, regional and global levels, the Asia-Pacific region has demonstrated its strong political will towards change, and a collective pledge to make education a priority, with UNESCO regional Member States in the lead.
As countries emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, a narrative of hardship and loss may actually be signaling a unique opportunity to creatively address long-standing challenges in education, and ultimately to deliver against the commitments made seven years ago (2015) to the SDG 4-Education 2030 Agenda.
At the same time, none of the challenges the world is facing today can be addressed in isolation. Therefore, regional collaboration and support among many partners is more important than ever to ‘shift the needle’ and make an impact at national, regional and global levels simultaneously. By working together, we can ensure the lasting success of learning recovery, and the adaptive and resilient transformation of education for years to come. To that end, the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, in close collaboration with its partners, will soon establish a regional programme to support countries in the region in their many learning recovery initiatives, and in their journey for truly innovative self-transformation.
We have only to step up the pace for achieving education for all. The time to act is now.
Cover Photo Credit: All_about_people/Shutterstock.com
UNESCO and UNICEF, 2022. The 2nd Asia-Pacific Regional Education Minister’s Conference (APREMC-II), Policy Brief: Transformative Education, Bangkok, UNESCO;
UNESCO and UNICEF, 2021a. Situation Analysis on the Effects of and Responses to COVID-19 on the Education Sector in Asia;
UNESCO and UNICEF. 2021b. 5-Year Progress Review of SDG4- Education 2030 in Asia-Pacific;
UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank. 2022. Where we are on Education Recovery;