Life Without School

21st March 2002, Afghan New Year, was the most humbling and memorable day of my working life. I was coordinating a “Back To School” campaign in Northern Afghanistan, and the 21st was the target date for opening of schools. This was the first major national reform after after a post-Taliban peace agreement signed a few months earlier. Rebuilding education was seen as a peace dividend for the Afghan people and a symbol of hope for their children on the first day of the first peaceful Spring after 23 years of war.

In this case, Back To School was a slightly misleading campaign title. There had never been more than 10% of children in school in Afghan history. If large numbers of children did go, they wouldn’t be going “back” to school. Most would be going for the very first time and would be the first in their families ever to attend school.

We worked for the preceding 60 days in one of the biggest logistical operations in UN history with the aim of creating an improvised national school system. Millions of classroom tents, text books and school backpacks were delivered via air. We distributed them to makeshift schools across the country, often via donkey or camel train. Many villages were not accessible by road or the routes had been badly war-damaged. A teaching workforce was built mainly from scratch by training anyone with a high school diploma on the basics of teaching. Schools were established in tents, fields, houses and former factories. In some cases. deadly land mines had to be cleared first. The campaign was intense, rapid and exhausting, but at 4 am on the the 21st March we put the final pin in a map. It showed every community in our zone had a designated school space, a teacher and supplies.

Just a few hours later we woke up to see the streets full of children hurrying in different directions to their first ever class. A total of 3 million children went to school that day. Seeing this was indescribable. It wasn’t just about learning. We knew that hungry children would receive lunch, traumatised and neglected children would receive attention, acknowledgement and maybe a sense of belonging. We knew that if children learned to read and write in school today, they would be less likely to die while giving birth or through preventable disease tomorrow. School connected those children to an enchanted world of learning. More than that, it is an accelerator for every other aspect of healthy child development and wellbeing.

The absence of education was a severe deprivation that the Afghan people yearned to overcome, for their children and their future. Similar struggles in different parts of the world have dramatically increased school access. Prior to the pandemic, 91% of the world’s schools age children were enrolled. This was unimaginable a few decades ago.

Todays school closures, affecting some 1.3 billion children globally, have momentarily reversed these gains. They affect all children, but have harmed the most vulnerable in three devastating and potentially life-lasting ways that :

  1. School closures exacerbate existing inequalities of access, quality and attainment for the poorest and most vulnerable children everywhere. Hard fought gains in attendance and access for female, Roma, indigenous or other excluded groups are under threat. Attention and resources risk being diverted away from a pre-covid learning crisis where half of the world’s children are in school but not really learning. Remote learning remains deeply unequal. Here in New York the 300,000 children who don’t have digital access are the poorest and already blighted by the lowest attainment and opportunities in the education system.
  2. 370 million of the worlds poorest children are missing out on vital school meals. These are children at risk of malnutrition and depend on school feeding programmes for basic health. Further to this, school is often a key community centre for monitoring overall child health. Health or nutrition deficits in childhood are not momentary, they impact development with life-lasting costs. School closures are a threat to the health and nutritional status of children
  3. At least 20% of children in any given society are affected by multiple forms of neglect, abuse and dysfunctional parenting at home. Only a fraction of them become child protection cases with dedicated and active social work support. For the rest, a soothing relationship with a teacher and school friends that can help them find a pathway to a better future and rebuild self belief. These relationships have been cut off with school closures. We know that unaddressed trauma in childhood is a major driver of poor mental and physical health throughout life and worse outcomes on almost every wellbeing measure.

The safe reopening of schools needs to be an urgent priority for governments everywhere. Remote learning is only a good alternative when schools are closed as a last resort. But as the UK Commissioner for Children Anne Longfield recently pointed out schools must be the last public space to close and the first to open. When there is a possibility to ease social distancing measures, it should be schools first not pubs!

It is a realistic proposition in the 21st century to set a target of connecting every child, every where to digital learning. This makes school systems more resilient to shocks and it can also network kids into public health and social work systems when direct access is not possible. Furthermore, the current digital gap is one of the major determinants of learning inequality. This needs huge innovation and investment, but it is achievable.

As much as disruption to schooling threatens our economic recovery, it also harms social fabric. Prior to the pandemic we were more atomised, polarised and lonely than ever, amidst an onslaught of identity conflict and receding communal values. School is the one place where children are socialised together and with common purpose and expectations. It is our great hope for healing, for binding and for belonging. Along with public health and social insurance, our educations systems are an endeavour that has propelled our societies forward and helped us to flourish. The longer they remain closed, the more difficult it is to narrow the gaps on quality, access and attainment and the wounds inflicted on children affected by poverty, exclusion or trauma. Thats why we need to prioritise the reopening of schools above all else.

A Children’s Pandemic

A month of Pandemic measures and I already wince at a handshake or touched face on Netflix. Just yesterday, New York was bustling, packed and confident. Now it is cautious, dispersed and masked. If our relationship with the world around us has been instantly transformed, what about the impact upon children in their formative years?

It may be the single blessing of this ruthless pandemic that children are least vulnerable to the virus. But sadly not the potentially deadly ricochets and aftershocks it leaves in its wake. This week the UN Secretary General reported that health and food system impacts will increase other childhood diseases and malnutrition. The number of children living in extreme poverty is projected to increase from 386 to as much as 450 million as a direct result of a new Covid19-induced economic crisis. Extreme poverty is always a killer and likely to take more children than the virus itself. Perhaps reversing 2-3 years of global progress on preventable childhood deaths.

There is barely a child on the planet whose life has not been affected by the Pandemic in some way. 1.5 billion are at home and not school. At least tens of millions of children will be born into this crisis, mostly in conditions that would have been different if it weren’t for the pandemic. Children cannot see their friends and suffer major disruptions to learning, life and play. Sports tournaments, excursions and hackathons all shelved, teenage romance on hold. A recent study suggested that prolonged quarantine in general can make a person 4 times more likely to have poor mental health. The pandemic shocks touch all children .

Fortunately many children have the shock absorbers of a safe home, loving family and freedom from poverty, social exclusion or war. If just one from the set is missing, the impact of the pandemic is likely to be deeper and life-changing. There is now a new single thread of additional vulnerability tying together children in tightly packed slums in African cities with those in camps in Syria and Yemen. It extends to the low income children in rich countries like the UK and US and those at risk of severe acute malnutrition in the poorest countries. It also hits the approximately 5% of the world’s children with disability and the 15-20% in seriously dysfunctional, neglectful and violent homes. This pandemic has been merciless in piling more pressure on to those least able to absorb it.

The bottom billion have no means for social distancing or hand washing. Their health systems often have just a few ventilators and Intensive care beds. They are not thinking of flattening the curve, but rather a couple of dozen cases flattening their entire health system. Prevention of other childhood diseases is already disrupted, including vaccination programmes on hold in 23 countries. 30 million conflict affected children are dependent on humanitarian assistance which is likely to be battered as supply chains buckle and aid financing and fiscal space contract. 40% of the world’s children don’t even have hand washing facilities.

Remote learning is a great solution for most children, but even here in New York city it is estimated that 300,000 low income children don’t have the digital means to participate. School closures will widen the two main learning gaps. The first between countries with high performing education systems who have the agility and means to switch and those countries which cannot run their education system effectively at the best of times. The second gap is between the learning outcomes of wealthy and poor children within countries. 368.5 million of those poor children have also been cut off from essential school feeding programmes which are often the only source of nutrition. Children in need of special learning support at school or dependent on relationships with teachers and friends to mitigate the pain of violent and neglectful homes are suddenly adrift. All against a rising backdrop of increased reporting of intimate partner violence and child abuse from India to Greenland to Australia and all points in between.

If the Coronavirus was a pantomime villain waiting behind a curtain for an opportune moment to pounce, it did so with precision. Thus far, dwindling internationalism has made us too weak to address the Pandemic in the whole. But you cannot partially address a pandemic. Even during the Cold War, the USSR and the West realized this and joined forces to end smallpox. And thats what our polarised world needs to do now. If everyone is not safe, no-one is safe. The virus shows our interdependence and in the end, maybe thats its virtue.

This is not insurmountable. WHO, UNICEF, the Red Cross, scientists and artists have joined forces in the Solidarity Fund to mobilise resources for a vaccine and for prevention and response work in low and middle income countries. Scientists shared the genetic sequencing on the virus very early on and are collaborating across borders despite nationally-minded governments. There is also a global initiative to galvanise leaders into more collaborative and internationally-minded policy-making in response to the pandemic.

We have also seen national governments and societies prioritise children. 83 countries have adapted their social protection systems to help shield poor families and children from the crisis. Health, education and social work systems have often adapted to maintain basic services. Armies of school and health volunteers are helping minimise the impact of the pandemic upon children.

We should now see maintaining supply chains, aid flows and health systems in poor and humanitarian contexts as a first line response for us all, even though it seems far away. Look how far the virus has already travelled. We may also need to invest in social protection to help the bottom billion socially distance, particularly those in densely packed and poorly resourced urban slum and refugee/migrant camps.

In wealthy and poorer countries alike we should support adaptions for teachers and social workers to have exactly the same amount of contact with children as they had before the crisis and for school feeding programmes to be delivered to homes. When adapting education we need to prevent remote learning widening the gap between wealthy and poor.

Albert Camus may have appreciated the importance of teacher contact and continued learning. In 1957 he dedicated his Nobel Prize for literature to the teacher who was there for him in the midst of poverty and adversity. His masterpiece The Plague is once again a bestseller and remains a testimony to our interdependence and collective strength in the face of this crisis. In it, he wrote: “No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of the disease and emotions shared by all.” .