In the destructive wake of the coronavirus pandemic, some commentators have lamented that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are now wholly unattainable and thus no longer applicable to the actual situations in various developing regions. This article is a refutation of this belief and promotes the idea that SDG targets in education must still be central to long-term education planning.
Though the road to attaining them may now be harder, the SDGs are ambitious targets that give planners an important standard to strive towards. These goals are not meant to encapsulate what is easy or possible. Attaining them is imperative, an end in itself, and our duty to those most in need around the world. In times of crisis such as these, the utility of these goals is in illuminating the actual work that must be done in real-life communities to make the progress we need.
It is integral that we acknowledge the real progress that has been made under the banner of these goals. In 2015, states from around the world made the historic commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, the fourth of which focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education.
The targets were ambitious from the outset; now, after the wide-reaching damages of this pandemic, they appear, in many cases, even more difficult to attain. But that makes it imperative to put in the work to bring us closer to these targets for the sake of the generation whose education depends on it.
We face many challenges today, but much progress has also been made. For instance, over the past years and decades, child literacy and enrollment rates have reached new heights, while the female-to-male ratio of students in primary and secondary classrooms has reached a stable parity.
The pandemic has also brought new challenges and trends to the forefront in areas like remote education, ICT in the classrooms, and student access to internet learning tools. It is important that we take stock of these changes by assessing the new means of pedagogy that have been adopted and where the deficits in capability lie.
Any crisis can also be seen as a turning point: this is a maxim that has been observed by historians, spiritual leaders, and other members of civil society. In a time of great social challenge and confusion such as this pandemic, it is difficult to imagine any opportunities for positive regrowth.
But the reality is that with each obstacle we face, we must make a choice of how we respond and how we will care for those who have been victimized. During a crisis, we build the world that the next generation will inhabit through each of these choices.
At times like these, it is important, now more than ever, to assist policy-makers in responding constructively to the present crisis. We must be clear-eyed about the negative impacts, especially on marginalized communities.
Schooling systems need immediate assistance in order to prevent immense academic setbacks for an entire generation. Simultaneously, long-term planning and deliberate investment are also required to ensure that the educational systems have the strength and resiliency to meet their respective populations’ future needs. The following are recommendations for how the international community and NGOs can target their assistance for both the short and the long term.
In the short term, a regionalized approach must be developed to reinforce education infrastructure on the ground. Because the needs of populations vary across regions and environments, any action taken to support education systems in the short term must be adapted to the needs of the local population, with a focus on marginalized communities. Where internet access exists, support should go towards developing ICT materials and ensuring teachers have high-quality ICT training; areas without internet access should receive investment in their capacity to produce and distribute self-instructional materials effectively.
Many marginalized demographics have suffered great setbacks during this pandemic. More efforts need to be targeted at them in the short term: for example, students with physical and developmental disabilities need more outreach to ensure that their educational needs are met, as do students in rural areas or living in migrant communities.
The capacity to recruit and train quality teachers must be reinforced, especially in smaller and poorer communities. This is a bigger recommendation that will take more investment at the outset but is crucial to ensure the long-term success of the education systems in poorer economies. Teachers need more training in ICT pedagogy; while they have made a heroic pivot to teaching students remotely during this pandemic, more robust training in using technology for teaching will be needed for future classroom settings, pandemic or no.
Quality, low-barrier internet access must be a long-term priority for education development. Internet-based tools have been an exceedingly useful method of distance instruction during all points of the pandemic, giving students a way to take lessons and communicate directly with their teachers. But a large portion of students — especially those in rural areas or from poorer backgrounds — cannot access these benefits.
As students rely more and more on internet access to further their studies, it is imperative to upgrade the broadband infrastructure even outside of pandemic circumstances. Concurrently, the curriculum in internet usage must be brought up to speed, not just for the sake of technological literacy but also to ensure that students are taught responsible behaviour online as part of positive global citizenship.
Promote strengthened TVET institutions, especially for girls and other marginalized groups. While the exact impact is not yet known, TVET institutions were in vulnerable positions in some cases before the pandemic and will likely need support in the short and medium-term. Female students have especially shown lower enrolment rates in TVET institutions than their male counterparts. Aid should be targeted at providing scholarships, funding awareness campaigns, hiring new staff or contributing other resources as needed. By providing a step for youth between their academic and work careers, these schools will be an essential part of a healthy economic recovery from the pandemic.