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Monday, August 29, 2022, 00:59
'Learning poverty' a growing problem here and worldwide
By Manoj Dhar
Monday, August 29, 2022, 00:59 By Manoj Dhar

Needless to say, globally, the less-privileged children have borne the maximum brunt of this learning catastrophe.

“The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update”, a joint publication of the World Bank, UNICEF, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the US Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in partnership with UNESCO, has highlighted that while prior to the ongoing pandemic, there was already a learning crisis globally; the COVID-19-related disruptive school closures have sharply exacerbated “learning poverty” — a measure of children unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. It is expected that globally, such underserved children whose education was disrupted could lose $21 trillion in future earnings and amounting to 17 percent of today’s global GDP. This impact far exceeds the $10 trillion estimates of 2020. While the dilapidating impact has caused a global rise in learning poverty, Latin America and the Caribbean were the worst affected, where approximately 80 percent of children are unable to understand a simple written text by the time they leave primary school. That’s up from around 50 percent prior to the pandemic. The next largest increase was seen in South Asia, where 78 percent of children are now likely to fail the same basic literacy test (compared with 60 percent pre-pandemic).

Thus, the prolonged school closures (full or partial) and unequal mitigation strategies will only serve to deepen the learning inequality among children. That children from less-fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds and other educationally marginalized groups are and will continue to suffer larger learning losses is only to be expected. Children with the most anemic grasp of foundational literacy, pre the closures, are staring at continuing to suffer the largest learning losses. Without strong foundational skills, owing to noninclusive and inequitable schooling environments, such children are unlikely to acquire the technical and higher-order skills needed to thrive in increasingly competitive and complex labor markets and more-complex societies. The inequality in learning between advantaged and disadvantaged groups is all set to grow, making the aspirations to ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity a bridge too far.

Closer to home, recently the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s Education Bureau relayed that owing to COVID-19 pandemic-related issues, all primary schools and kindergartens in the academic year beginning in September 2022 will maintain half-day face-to-face teaching. This will then extend the run of enormously disruptive environments besetting Hong Kong’s children, dating back to December 2019. Add to that, the language-based educational poverty of the underserved children continues relentlessly. The media is replete with articles regarding its non-English-speaking children (aka ethnic majorities) struggling with English-language proficiency, its non-Chinese-speaking children (aka ethnic minorities) struggling with Chinese-language proficiency, and the ethnic-majority Chinese children dubbing the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education’s Chinese exam as the “paper of death”. One way or another, even under normal pre-COVID-19 times, a wide segment of children are being systemically underserved and educationally marginalized on the basis of language. What is astoundingly remarkable is the consistent narrative by the empowered lot (educators/teachers) to claim as to how hard it is for them to teach in an inclusive manner and provide equal learning opportunities for the children.

In response to the persistent demands of the schools and teachers, the EDB has been extremely generous in providing them with constant handsome funding. For the 2021-22 school year, the government spent more than HK$500 million ($63.7 million) to aid non-Chinese-speaking students in learning Chinese. From the 2016-17 to 2020-21 financial years, the average total annual expenditure for support measures on English-language education was about HK$900 million. This was in addition to the HKSAR government setting up the Language Fund in 1994 and injecting HK$5 billion seed money to the Language Fund in 2014 to provide a steady stream of funding to facilitate the long-term objective of enhancing the English proficiency of Hong Kong students. The EDB has been providing the desired resources as well, but it seems even that is not enough incentive for their motivation to behave as inclusive educators. It’s deeply disturbing that while teaching is inherently considered the noblest of professions, the stakeholders have reduced it to lamenting the need for more money. Every single child that falls victim to educational poverty and intergenerational socioeconomic marginalization, owing to the nonperformance of a teacher, is clear evidence of educators having failed them.

It is now overdue to move beyond mere social media posts, and indulging commentators playing the ongoing “blame the victim” narrative. It would augur well for such teachers to appreciate that just returning to the pre-COVID-19 status quo will not secure the future of Hong Kong’s daughters and sons — it requires their sincere commitment to ensure a vigorous learning recovery and at a proactive and accelerated rate. Teachers need to seize the initiative, recalibrate the academic year, reassess learning levels regularly, prioritize teaching the fundamentals, and increase the efficiency of instruction including through catch-up learning. This is the only and nonnegotiable way to secure the future of Hong Kong’s young ones and the health and well-being of Hong Kong.

Now, more so than ever, it is time to respond positively to Nelson Mandela’s oft-cited philosophy — “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”!

The author is the co-founder and CEO of Integrated Brilliant Education, a frontline NGO providing equity based, inclusive and equal language learning opportunities to Hong Kong’s underserved and educationally marginalized non-Chinese-speaking children.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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