Bold commitments and evidence-backed decisions are needed to build more resilient education systems, as Jane Mann, Managing Director, Cambridge Partnership for Education, explains.
The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns across the globe had a significant impact on children’s education. School closures all over the world to contain the pandemic affected 91% of the global student population.
 Education became heavily reliant on connectivity and digital technologies. These changes have endured. Most schools in the region have now adopted, or plan to move towards, a hybrid approach to overcome pandemic-posed challenges, integrating classroom learning with digital resources.
The Gulf States were better prepared than most for the pivot to remote learning. The UAE’s Ministry of Education had already formed a task force in 2017 charged with implementing the ‘Transformation to Smart Education’.
 Its experimental initiative, The Smart Education Portal, was an interactive electronic learning platform designed to bring together teachers, students and parents and apply new pedagogy.
However, across low and middle-income countries, the pandemic exacerbated the digital divide. While 94% of ministries of education developed policies on remote learning based on digital and/or broadcast instruction, at least 31% of students globally could not access remote learning during school closures last year. In Eastern and Southern Africa, that rose to at least 49%.
 At the height of the pandemic, 1.53 billion learners were out of school, with 184 country-wide school closures. Dropout rates are expected to soar on the back of economic pressures and prolonged disruptions to learning.
When nearly half the children are deprived of access to learning, it can have catastrophic results for communities, countries and the world at large. Ensuring uninterrupted education for all children is the key to increased peace and prosperity.
Learning for a New World
Just like other sectors, technology is expected to play an ever-growing and essential role in education. But better connectivity or more digital solutions are insufficient to meet current challenges, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. They do not automatically ensure better learning outcomes. In fact, the amount of time teachers spend using digital devices in teaching and learning activities is often negatively associated with reading performance.
 The context is a critical part of the equation. Most edtech products, services and research are rooted in high-income contexts. We need to consider the practical realities and challenges of the classroom in a low to middle-income community where the technology is going to be used, and how it can be best integrated to achieve results. And we also need to acknowledge where more low-tech solutions might have the greatest reach and impact.
While 94% of ministries of education developed policies on remote learning based on digital and/or broadcast instruction, at least 31% of students globally could not access remote learning during school closures last year
Traditional resources such as high-quality textbooks remain an essential and reliable educational resource for teachers and learners.
Through our own work in the region, we have witnessed the engagement and pleasure of both teachers and students in using these textbooks. Reforming these learning resources can help us deliver the positive impact at scale that is urgently needed to counter the learning setbacks of the pandemic.
There is no doubt that education systems need radical transformations to achieve education outcomes at scale and address systemic inequities. However, sustainable change also takes time. We have seen this with the precipitated rush to digital education without adequately training teachers or school leaders.
 Increasing digital access is not enough in itself. Any plans of using more technology in teaching need to prioritise teacher development too. It is critical that teachers receive adequate training so they can integrate digital devices into teaching and learning activities effectively to benefit all.
Our world has changed irreversibly and rather swiftly in many ways. As educationists, our mission must be to prepare young people for this new digital reality. To this end, it is gratifying to see the high priority accorded by the UAE and GCC states for education and upskilling in their national agendas. They are supporting education not only at home but across the world.
 Today’s challenge is to mitigate the pandemic’s negative impact on education and accelerate improved learning for a better future. For this, the existing digital divide must be narrowed so all children have equal opportunities for good education. Access to electricity, access to affordable internet, and access to devices are first steps, but more important than the hardware, in this case, is what it is delivering. We need to design education systems that are a better fit for children and more relevant to a digital future. Education that can equip them with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values required to live fulfilling lives in the 21st century.
When masses of knowledge can be easily accessed at the click of a button, we need to imbue learners with the skills to sift through ambiguity and disinformation, and critically construct and validate knowledge.
In a socio-economic environment that is in constant flux, resilience and adaptability are essential career and life skills. The nature of work has fundamentally changed as well. Alongside the slew of digital skills, employers are looking to hire people with skills in creativity, communication and collaboration, empathy and emotional intelligence. Our transformed education systems should be nurturing these human qualities to better prepare students for the new reality.
When nearly half the children are deprived of access to learning, it can have catastrophic results for communities, countries and the world at large
One for All, All for One
The UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 ensures inclusive and equitable quality education for all and promotes lifelong opportunities for all. Therefore, inclusive education is central to education policy.
At Cambridge Partnership for Education, we work closely with relevant government bodies and education entities to work towards systems where everyone receives the education they need to achieve their goals and find their place in a modern, inclusive society. We believe every country should have a quality education system to make this possible. To help maximise the investment in education, we work on evidence-based education reform from every angle – curriculum, assessment, learning materials and teacher training.
The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) is a global fund enabling partners to chart a way forward to transform education systems in GPE partner countries. The Global Education Summit held in London recently set an ambitious objective of garnering pledges from donors to help GPE reach its target of at least $5 billion over five years, along with commitments from GPE partner countries on domestic financing for education. Such collaborations will ensure that equity and excellence in education can be achieved for the prosperity of all.