Unleashing the power of education
Education has suffered during the pandemic, and emerges facing a number of challenges.
Mass school closures affected the most vulnerable students, exposing and amplifying enduring equity challenges.
The pandemic underlined important shortcomings related to basic critical thinking and information literacy skills in youth and adults – the tools needed to fight mis- and dis-information.
The pandemic also emphasised the importance of the socialisation function of education, and the need to support not only cognitive development but the development of social and emotional skills, values and attitudes, to prepare students to thrive in adverse circumstances.
As we head into 2023, how can education policymakers use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink education systems, enhancing their efficiency and adapting them for the future?
In 2020, 1.5 billion students in 188 countries were locked out of their schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and learning disruptions continued over the course of 2021.
School closures due to COVID-19
number of days, selected countries
National studies to evaluate the impact of school closures on learning outcomes were undertaken in many countries, covering learning losses in both reading and mathematics, and to a lesser extent, science.
Studies also looked at the impacts of the crisis on the mental health and well-being of students and teachers, mostly at primary and secondary levels.
The impacts of the pandemic on education have been severe. In response, countries increased instruction time for students, offered pedagogical training for teachers, and even introduced summer schools on a national level throughout 2021/22, to help primary and secondary students recover learning losses and build psycho-social resilience.
The pandemic has deepened our understanding of how education keeps inequality and social cohesion in balance. When schools closed or had to turn to distance education and home schooling, inequality was amplified.
Share of children engaged in early literacy
and numeracy activities, 2019
Across OECD countries, children from privileged socio-economic backgrounds are more exposed to regular home learning, more likely to graduate from university, be in good health and have greater disposable income than children from low-income households.
And while remote schooling and distance learning are better options than no schooling at all, post-pandemic evidence has shown that remote education widened existing social disparities in learning, with large learning losses among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The post-pandemic educational reality will require new solutions to the challenges of inequity and fairness in education, moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to more personalised and inclusive learning. Smart uses of digital technologies – such as adaptive learning, enhanced personalisation of learning experiences, and access to a greater array of learning resources and equipment – can help.
More dynamic education systems
National measures for recovery in education have tended to focus on primary to upper secondary education, but the pandemic also exposed the need to address the impacts on young people’s learning, development and mental health.
Share of NEET youth, as a % of total
18-24-year-olds, selected countries
Between 2019 and 2020, most countries saw an increase in the share of 18–24-year-olds not in employment, education or training (NEET), from 14.6% to 15.3%, across Europe and the Americas.
Despite some improvement in 2021, experiences following the 2008 financial crisis indicate a lag time before the effect of economic disruptions is felt by this group.
The share of NEET youth peaked some five years after the intial shock, in 2013.
Furthermore, 2021 OECD data indicate that 25–29-year-olds who had left school prior to attaining an upper secondary qualification were twice as likely to be NEET as those with an upper secondary qualification.
As disruptions and evolutions continue in 2023, countries are seeking to provide measures to support labour market inclusion for young people facing major or multiple employment obstacles, working with education systems to give young people – and adults – greater ownership over what, how, where and when they learn.
Rising international student mobility
The average share of 25–34-year-olds with a tertiary degree increased from 27% in 2000 to 48% in 2021 across OECD countries. The share of international students also increased by 70% during this period, reaching some 4.4 million international students.
International students as a share of
tertiary students in %, selected countries
OECD countries have witnessed a strong increase in international students since 2010. The absolute increase was largest in the United States, Canada and Australia, followed by Germany and the Republic of Türkiye, while the relative growth was largest in smaller destinations such as the Baltic countries and Slovenia.
Outside these top-seven destinations, the share of international students enrolled in an OECD country has grown consistently, increasing to almost 30% by 2020. But while destinations have diversified over the past decade, the main origin countries have largely remained stable, with China and India accounting for 22% and 10% of all international students, respectively.
From a migration policy perspective, international students are a unique group. They are often seen as “pre-integrated” migrants whose domestic credentials are easily recognisable by employers, and who have at least some experience and knowledge of the host country, including the language.
The pandemic accelerated the digital shift in education, forcing countries to adopt digital solutions when schools and institutions closed. But not all education systems have managed to tap into the potential of digital technologies.
Share of individuals with above-basic levels
of overall digital skills, EU 27 average, 2021
Little over one in two adults on average across the European Union in 2021 show basic or above-basic proficiency across five components of digital skills (information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, digital content creation, safety, problem solving).
But digital skills deficits also affect children and youth, notably in socio-economically disadvantaged schools where instruction can be impeded by shortages in digital infrastructure and tools.The same holds true for students in public schools and those in rural areas.
Yet PISA evidence shows that the use of digital devices in teaching can support better student performance and engagement.
As countries evaluate their future education spending, they should continue to invest in educational tools that can support all learners in developing the foundational skills that will help them navigate this new digital age confidently.
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