COVID-19 represents most significant challenge to education since WW2

29 Apr 2020 |

Flags of the various countries represented by the members of the Atlantis Group

Without action, COVID-19 could reverse decades of global progress on education


LONDON, UK - The Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic represents the most significant challenge to education globally since World War 2, the Atlantis Group of former education ministers and heads of government said today.

The majority of the world’s governments have now closed schools and other learning institutions temporarily as part of a package of measures intended to address the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. Today, over 1.5 billion learners and 63 million teachers are affected by system-wide closures in 191 countries, according to monitoring by UNESCO, the UN’s lead agency on education. While the closures are affecting learners of all levels, the majority are children of school age.

This global disruption to education, unprecedented in modern times, is also driving unprecedented innovation, as governments deploy measures to ensure learning continuity through alternative means, from digital platforms to television and radio. In many cases such innovation is being led by teachers and school leaders, who are working to support learners and their families. Connectivity to the internet and to mass media are proving to be critical factors in ensuring that children are not entirely cut off from their education. But the greatest risk is that this crisis will compound the significant challenges already faced by many countries to delivering universal access to quality learning.

Prior to the current crisis, the World Bank and UNESCO Institute for Statistics had estimated that 53% of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple text, an international indicator known as Learning Poverty. There are very high rates of Learning Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia, which are the regions with the largest shortages of well-trained and qualified teachers. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 64% of primary and 50% of secondary teachers have received minimum training and this frequently does not include basic ICT skills. Many school systems already face well-documented, system-wide challenges to delivering access to education and quality learning. We were already living a learning crisis before COVID-19. And this crisis will most likely deepen.

An Atlantis Group delegation visits the Parliament of Romania in Bucharest, October 2019

The emergency measures needed today to save lives and to check the spread of the Coronavirus are also affecting the education of hundreds of millions of learners worldwide. It is still unclear how the magnitude of the disruption caused by temporary school closures, and the widespread deaths and illness caused by the global pandemic, will affect education systems in the long term. But the potential losses in learning and reductions in enrollment rates are very large, especially among the poor, who have far fewer resources to cope. Girls are likely to be hardest hit in many countries.

It is also unclear how significant the damage will be to education budgets and aid infrastructure. The Atlantis Group considers that there is a significant risk that the international community may now deprioritize its global education efforts at a critical time and that education might not be protected in national budgets, with irreversible consequences for human capital growth and sustainable development. If the international community turns away from its education efforts in the wake of this crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic could reverse decades of global progress.

Before the advent of the Coronavirus, there had already been a decade of stagnation in the levels of international aid for education, with aid to education dropping after the last global financial crisis and only recently returning to growth.[1] One in four countries spend less on education than the internationally recommended minimum level of 4% of GDP and less than 15% of their budget.[2] Furthermore, in recent decades education systems globally have faced significant disruption from conflict, political unrest and disease, notably including the recent Ebola crisis.

The Atlantis Group welcomes the growing response to the Coronavirus pandemic from the international community, including the Global Education Coalition led by UNESCO and its members’ initiatives including UNICEF, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education. Amid an uncertain future, this is a critical moment for States worldwide to recommit themselves to the vision set out in the Sustainable Development Goals – including education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

As a priority, the Atlantis Group urges the international community to ringfence global funding for education systems in the wake of the immediate crisis. In particular, the group urges countries to maintain adequate levels of funding for quality education in the wake of the crisis, and also calls upon donor countries not to cut aid disbursements intended to support education systems. This would set the foundations for a smart and sustainable recovery.

The Atlantis Group further urges governments around the world to take steps to protect vulnerable teachers from the threat of COVID-19 when schools do reopen.

About the Atlantis Group  |

Bringing together former education ministers worldwide

The Atlantis Group is a body of 26 former ministers of education and heads of government from around the world. Its members have over 90 years of combined experience in managing public education systems. The group advocates for action by the international community to address global issues in education. The Atlantis Group was established by the Varkey Foundation, a global education charity, and launched at the 2017 Global Education & Skills Forum at the Atlantis The Palm hotel in Dubai, UAE.

[1] Aid to education: A return to growth? UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report

[2] Meeting commitments: Are countries on track to achieve SDG4? UNESCO UIS and Global Education Monitoring Report (2019)