COVID-19: THE REVEALER OF SOCIAL INEQUALITY IN OUR EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM

Earlier this year, COVID-19 hit the world and was declared a public health emergency of international concern on 30th January 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO). The world wasn’t ready. Nigeria wasn’t either. We didn’t prepare for such a pandemic that brought the world to an almost stop.

The pandemic resulted in the closure of schools affecting around a billion learners in over 100 countries. This brought a lot of concerns especially for us when progress was starting to be seen with the increase in enrollment rate and other developments in the Nigerian Educational sector. The halt in education brings with it risks to all classes of learners particularly the girl child. We are bound to witness an increase in drop-out rates, early or forced marriage, hunger, a rise in domestic violence, and so on.

COVID-19 outbreak and its consequences prompted a lot of initiatives. Organizations both governmental and non-governmental had to adapt to new ways of doing things. Zoom and other virtual meetings and conferencing became even more mainstream. Meetings, training, conferences, and even learnings still continue to be held via these digital platforms largely and effectively. We all have learned some hard lessons and had to improvise, find ways for the new normal while mostly leveraging on technology and technical skills. The educational sector wasn’t left behind, literacy by radio program was also re-introduced in developing countries, Nigeria inclusive.

In almost all the initiatives to cope, private institutions led (and still lead) the adaptation process. We see how they continually quickly strategize to fit into the ‘new normal’ ways of doing things. It is the same in the educational sector too. We see the rapid growth in remote and digital learning so that students aren’t left behind as they stayed at home to ensure their safety. This transition (still ongoing) isn’t easy. It requires the provision of infrastructure and equipping both administrators and parents with the technical know-how. We also see the impact of having an educated parent or a family member, because while these children were learning through digital means or otherwise at home, they had the support of their families who guided the process set by their schools. With or without the pandemic, I believe this is an approach we should adapt to complement the hitherto existing system.

In all of these new developments we are witnessing in the educational sector, private institutions showed us they have a competitive advantage compared to their public counterparts. This glaring truth further cements the assertion that students enrolled in these (private) schools already have a competitive advantage over those enrolled in public schools.

Think of “Amina” or “Musa” in a far remote community with no access to all these alternative means of learning and having either or both parents not knowing how to read and write. This is the reality in most rural and low-income families for us here in Northern Nigeria.

The children from rural and low-income households don’t have access to the internet or digital devices, and to some in hard to reach communities access to radio is still a challenge in this 21st century. It is therefore very easy to claim children enrolled in public school are so much left behind.

Looking around, so many questions come to mind as the fate of these disenfranchised poor learners. How do they continue to learn while schools are closed? How can we effectively be there for them? How do we ensure this educational inequality is tackled for the sake of a better future for all? How do we ensure inclusive and qualitative education? How can parents and communities play a bigger and better role in supporting children’s education? With the plans to reopen schools, what can we do differently so we don’t keep leaving the poor and vulnerable behind?

These are very tough questions whose answers provide a vital opportunity for revamping the educational sector even after Covid-19 is over.

The public (educational) sector needs revamping — a lot of unlearning and re-learning and formulation of new strategies to bridge the educational inequality gap thereby ensuring equal access and inclusion. Quality education — as it should be — is a right for every child irrespective of gender and social class.

COVID-19 brought the future of work and employability forward and made us all realize the impact of the fourth industrial revolution (4iR) which seeks to disrupt almost all fields of human endeavor. We, therefore, need to find ways to smartly integrate technology which will not only equip the students with knowledge but will also improve the way we work and our systems.

It is with no doubt vast opportunities are going to come from the ICT sector as we have started seeing already. How then do we ensure children from rural and low-income families are ready to compete and also tap into these opportunities?

Digital education must be available and prioritized in our public schools with massive affordable internet access and devices. The future of work is driven towards smart technology and this can only be achieved with the right foundation we start to lay now in our educational system.

Digital literacy and skills are one pillar for the acceleration of Nigeria’s National Digital Economy and the future of this economy is NOW! To ensure this advancement, I believe there will be a need for comprehensive training for all teachers across all levels of public education, equipping them for digital learning, innovation, and creative thinking.

A paradigm shift needs to also be rapidly accelerated, a shift from the traditional teacher-centered ways of teaching to learners-centered; learners need to be involved and carried along every step of the way. This will immensely benefit the educational system, the country, and the economy in the future.

We need our educational materials to be contextualized to our realities and be made scalable and fit for learning in a way that sparks innovation and curiosity. The educational sector needs more protection at this time more than ever, we need an increase in its financing and developmental projects purposely targeted at ensuring long-term sustainability. It will remain a fact that education no matter the effect of a pandemic, must continue, and education must continue to grow.

To also ensure this long term sustainability, the government needs to particularly give more support to formal learning for married adolescents girls. These girls need to be given access to return to school as we are bound to witness a rise in early marriage as long as schools remain closed, especially for girls in rural communities. These can be mitigated through flexible learning to accommodate their new realities or accelerated learning. Voices of young people need to be heard and involved when making decisions regarding their education. They need to have access and also be included (especially digital inclusion at this time).

As African countries are ranked in the bottom third of countries in terms of internet availability and affordability, this is an avenue for startups around here to drive innovations that will support the government and other agencies in providing cost-effective digital solutions for learning, especially for those in hard to reach communities.

This is also a time for private organizations to channel their CSR funds to further support the advancement of education, while also leveraging on telecommunication brands to provide free internet access to educational platforms. Just like we get to browse and get COVID-19 related information for free via NCDC or WHO website during these difficult times, such initiatives for education should be made available and free to students for learning.

Adult literacy should be scaled up especially for women in rural and hard to reach communities. This is so they can actively contribute towards supporting their children’s education; gain valuable knowledge that will enable them to make informed decisions; and also contribute to making an impact in society.

Lastly, we need to look within and beyond to find ways to address our social norms that have continued to hinder progress in Education, identify agents of change and work towards positively changing these norms for the better.

We cannot afford to take hard lessons taught to us by the pandemic for granted. We have seen the glaring divide and therefore we need to act and also sustain all actions. Education should be made accessible to all.

I believe there’s indeed nothing a visionary leadership cannot drive. Let us continue to build a healthy, prosperous society for all.

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Social Development || Project Management || Management Consulting || Human Rights || Gender & Inclusion || Global Shaper || SDGs 1, 4, 5 & 10 || Researcher

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Masturah Aminu Baba

Masturah Aminu Baba

Social Development || Project Management || Management Consulting || Human Rights || Gender & Inclusion || Global Shaper || SDGs 1, 4, 5 & 10 || Researcher

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