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It’s now nearly a year since schools around the world shut their doors to students in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Since then, organisations ranging from the United Nations to the Institute for Outdoor Learning have warned of the negative consequences of school closures, with disadvantaged children deemed to be at greater risk of missing out on learning and life opportunities than their wealthier counterparts. 

The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has gone so far as to call school closures, “a generational catastrophe”, while The Telegraph has argued that “school closures are where a disaster that at first appeared to threaten everyone equally has revealed itself as a driver of inequality and injustice.”

In this blog, we look at the potential impacts of school closures in the UK and sub-Saharan Africa on the learning, wellbeing and development of children. 

Education in the UK

In the UK, children across the country have now lost at least half a year of classroom time since March 2020. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that, without catch-up initiatives such as repeating school years, summer tuition and extended classroom hours, the current generation of children is set to lose £350 billion in lifetime earnings. This estimate can be linked directly to a loss of learning, resulting in children gaining less skills and qualifications, and having lower levels of income throughout their careers. 

However, while all children in the UK have been impacted by school closures, evidence suggests that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have been disproportionately affected. A study conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), involving 3,000 teachers, found that disadvantaged and black and minority ethnic children have suffered more than their wealthier counterparts.

While the average time of lost learning was three months for all pupils, more than 50% of pupils at schools in deprived areas lost four months or more, compared with just 15% of pupils in wealthy areas. In addition, while just 1% of pupils in the wealthiest areas lost six months in learning, more than 10 times as many children were affected in the same way in the poorest areas. Overall, the research found that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in July 2020 was 46% bigger than it had been a year earlier. 

Similarly, survey data from more than 4,000 families in England indicated that, by the end of May 2020, children from wealthier families had received a week and a half more home-learning time than those in the poorest households, due to factors such as easier access to computers and the internet, private or family tuition, and their own study space. The Institute for Fiscal Studies also found that children from better-off families spent 30% more time each day on educational activities compared with those from the poorest fifth of households, including 75 minutes more each day on schoolwork. Lucy Kraftman, one of the study’s authors, argues that, “These differences will likely widen pre-existing gaps between children from different backgrounds.”

Residential school trips have also been cancelled since the pandemic.

Educational visits and residential trips

School closures in the UK have also meant a loss of non-academic activities for all children, including outdoor learning and residential school trips. The Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL) estimates that children have lost out on 1.5 million educational visits since March 2020. Andy Robinson, the IOL’s chief executive, has said that, “every child’s first trip away from home is an important and formative experience. The government must protect the industry or face an economic, social and cultural disaster.” Other leading figures in the industry have supported this view, with Gill Harvey, chief executive of the School Travel Forum, arguing that, “More than a million children will have missed out on these experiences and the many opportunities they open up in terms of enhanced learning, direct experience of different cultures, languages and environment, and being able to connect textbook learning with the world around them.” 

Providers, schools and parents have also argued that outdoor education and residential trips have an important role to play in helping to repair the damage caused by school closures. The Deputy Head of the John Rankin Federation of schools, for example, has described residential trips as, “essential for children’s emotional and educational development”, while the IOL has argued that outdoor education could help improve the confidence, resilience and teamwork of a generation who have been under some form of restrictions for nearly a year, with few opportunities to properly connect with each other or nature.

Education in sub-Saharan Africa

While the impact of school closures on children in the UK has been profound, it is nothing compared to the consequences of closing schools in Africa. In fact, Unicef has called the widespread school closures, “the biggest crisis to affect children in Africa in decades”, and sub-Saharan Africa is now experiencing its first recession, with 50 million people being pushed into extreme poverty.

School closures in sub-Saharan Africa affected 250 million children, and, for most of those, learning completely stopped for months at a time. In Kenya, where some of our partner projects are based, schools closed for nine months – one of the longest closures on the continent. The World Bank estimates that each child is likely to experience a lifetime earning loss of $4,500 as a result. 

The pandemic has also exacerbated many of the pre-existing challenges faced by children in sub-Saharan Africa. By April 2020, more than 50 million children had lost access to the free daily meals provided by their school, with 40 million children unable to access free meals for six months or more. An estimated 280 million, or more than half the child population of sub-Saharan Africa, are now facing food insecurity. 

An estimated 280 million children in sub-Saharan Africa are now facing food insecurity.

Many children are also unlikely to return to school even now they have reopened. This has been reflected at our partner projects, who have reported lower numbers of students in attendance; this may be because children are now employed in farming, fishing or potentially other, more dangerous, work. Other community-run schools in Kenya have been forced to permanently close their doors altogether. Rajat Madhok, the chief of Communication Advocacy and Partnerships at the Unicef office in Rwanda, says that, “Without the safety net that schools provide, students are more vulnerable to abuse, including child labour and sexual violence.” This was also evident in 2014, when schools in West Africa closed to stop the spread of Ebola, leading to pregnancy rates amongst teenage girls in Sierra Leone reportedly doubling, and leaving many girls unable to return to school when they reopened.

Finally, even now that schools across sub-Saharan Africa have reopened, there are still many challenges to ensuring that education remains accessible and safe for all children. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for Africa, says that the decision to reopen schools should be, “guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers, and parents, and with key measures like physical distancing put in place.” This is echoed by the WHO and Unicef, both of whom advise social distancing, suspending school events to avoid crowds, installing handwashing facilities, wearing masks, discouraging physical contact, and keeping sick students and teachers at home. However, a report by the WHO and Unicef has found that only 47% of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have basic sanitation facilities, while only 44% have access to basic drinking water. It is clear, then, that schools desperately need extra support in order to remain open and safe for their students.

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