School closures, unequal access to digital tools, and subpar education systems – in the past two years the global education crisis became more evident than ever before. Here, education experts Caitlin Baron and Erin Ganju explain why there is still cause for hope and what Europe can learn from school projects in the Global South.
Caitlin Baron: In Africa and Southeast Asia, where Erin and I mostly work, school closures literally put a stop to all forms of education. We know that one in three children received no form of education during the pandemic – no books, no worksheets, no WhatsApp groups, no radio programs, nothing!
Erin Ganju: Nor is the crisis over. Even by early summer 2022, at least 350 million children who attended classes five days a week before the COVID-19 pandemic still go to school only part time. Add to this what we call the ‘crisis within the crisis’, namely that the quality of education was seriously lacking even before the pandemic. Worldwide, 40 percent of children who regularly attend school cannot read, write, or do math by age 10.
Ganju: School closures have prompted an increase in the number of children affected by depression, gender-based violence, child marriage, and teen pregnancy. Schools are so much more than just places for children to learn – they offer at least one meal a day and a place to connect with others in the community outside of home. There are people who can help. Going to school is like a protective bubble in children’s lives. So, this isn’t just about ensuring children’s academic progress, but also about their well-being in general. We know from a World Bank report that the learning loss suffered during the pandemic may have a long-term impact on the economic opportunities these children will have later in life.
Baron: The Luminos Fund supports families with what we call ‘first-generation readers’: children from families where nobody can read or write. When schools close, such children get absolutely no help in learning to read, and yet reading is the educational key to unlock any form of subsequent learning.
Ganju: Absolutely. This ‘crisis within the crisis’ hits those children who already have a lot of catching up to do especially hard. This is where the Luminos accelerated educational model comes in. This program offers classes for students to catch up on two to three years of school in intensive, child-centered lessons and to prepare for their ongoing schooling and education in regular schools.
Baron: It’s incredibly exciting to see what happens when you bring two groups together that each play such a central role in international education: foundations and bilateral aid organizations. Huge sums of money flow into a country through government aid agencies, while a range of small, innovative foundation-led projects run in parallel. All too often, there is not enough coordination and collaboration between these groups.
Ganju: I think foundations and bilateral aid organizations complement one another. We are all part of the same ecosystem. The more we rally together behind shared goals, the better.
Baron: Foundations can drive fantastic, innovative ideas and really shake up education, but they are still dwarfed by the comparative amounts governments in Africa or Southeast Asia can invest in their own countries. The symposium in Berlin highlighted that there is a great deal of mutual interest between foundations on the one hand and bilateral donors on the other.
Caitlin Baron (l.) and Erin Ganju in conversation at the Berlin Global Education Funders Forum on May 10, 2022.
Baron: Our approach centers around learning teams, something I think is useful anywhere, as teachers can’t do the job alone. Luminos works with parents and community members. While this might look a bit different in Ethiopia than it would in Germany, we are all about having everyone pitching in. Another thing I learned was that, while it is possible to catch up, stress has no role to play in getting there. In our experience, children can catch up on three years of school in a single year if they can do so in a joyful learning environment full of love and care.
Ganju: It’s vital to focus on school staff training and development, as well as capacity building. Some teachers haven’t had any professional training in twenty years, and yet we are constantly unlocking new information about learning. We also need to track the children’s learning progress on an ongoing basis. That’s the only way to know if what we’re doing actually works.
Baron: The teachers and their relationship with students is at the heart of any child’s learning journey. Digital learning can certainly enrich this process, but it can never replace that.
Ganju: The pandemic has proved that access to technology is a fiercely competitive resource for many children living in lower-income countries. In India, girls draw the short straw, with boys generally taking precedence. As such, digital learning can never be a substitute in the fight for equal access to education for all children.
Ganju: Promoting education is the best way we can ensure people develop relevant solutions that meet the needs in their local communities. That’s why education is such a pressing global issue, not least in the fight against climate change and inequality.
Baron: This wouldn’t be the first time we have achieved great things in the space of a decade: One of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals for 2015 was to ensure primary education for every child on the planet. As part of this goal, we managed to reduce the number of children without a primary education by 40 percent in ten years.
Ganju: Now, our goal is for all children to receive a high-quality education – from first to twelfth grade. While this might be an ambitious goal, the good news is that we don’t have to invent anything new – no new vaccinations or anything like that. On the contrary, we already know exactly how children learn best. What’s missing is the political will to tackle the issue. We need more focus, more attention, and more resources for education. Because we know from experience that it can be done. We just have to want it!
The Luminos Fund enables out-of-school children in Africa and the Middle East to start school and learn successfully. The organiszation supports governments and authorities in establishing accelerated learning classes for out-of-school children to reach the most marginalized populations. With its intensive, child-centered pedagogy, the "Second-Chance” program helps students to catch up on the curriculum of two to three years and prepare for their further education and training in governmental schools. The Luminos Fund ist supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.