School closures during the pandemic have hit socially excluded students hard. The EU needs to ensure every child can reach their potential.
Ten months on since the pandemic began shuttering schools across Europe, wide gulfs in access to education have been laid bare. Children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular, have endured considerable setbacks to their learning.
According to a European Commission report, this loss of schooling in vulnerable communities is expected to culminate in lower retention and completion rates. With education closely linked to health and social mobility, poorer job prospects, increased poverty and reduced life expectancy are likely down the road. The situation is compounded by a youth mental-health crisis brought on by the pandemic.
The European Pillar of Social Rights opens by specifying that all Europeans have an integral ‘right to quality and inclusive education’. Though conventionally a member-state purview, the crisis underscores the need for the European Union to devote additional resources towards ensuring that every child can reach their full potential.
The first wave of the pandemic saw schools throughout Europe, with few exceptions, switch from in-person instruction to remote learning. Though many governments had sought to avoid a repeat, stringent winter lockdowns have recently seen schools once again become a casualty of the virus.
The shift to online education has proved detrimental, with an average weekly learning loss of around 0.82-2.3 per cent estimated in France, Germany, and Italy during the spring. The effects have been especially calamitous for children from marginalised communities.
Over 10 per cent of students, the majority hailing from socio-economically disadvantaged families, have been cut off from education altogether in some European countries. In Romania, a survey by Caritas revealed that only 3 per cent of Roma children had participated in online lessons. Even in countries whose education systems take pride in equality—such as Finland and Denmark—schools have struggled to include children from low-income households, including many from migrant backgrounds.
Numerous barriers exist. Access to technology is one. While nearly all students attending advantaged schools in the EU have access to computers for schoolwork, the proportion falls to around 80 per cent in disadvantaged schools in Greece, Slovakia and Hungary. Remote learning has, consequently, seen children from impoverished households compete with multiple siblings for access to electronic devices—often mobile phones—to complete assignments.
Loan programmes for electronic devices have been introduced by some governments but advocates point out that these haven’t always reached the most vulnerable children. Even when they do, gaps in digital literacy hinder many students and families from optimally using them.
Other obstacles include the lack of quiet spaces for learning, with multiple household members sharing one or two rooms, and a higher likelihood that children from vulnerable communities are left to utilise educational materials themselves, without parental supervision and emotional support.
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Though now put in plain sight, inequalities in education in the EU are not new. Indeed educational poverty, measured by students failing to achieve minimum national standards, has grown throughout Europe since 2000, according to a 2018 World Bank report. Among socio-economically disadvantaged students, 47 per cent fail to demonstrate basic proficiency in mathematics, compared with 22.5 per cent of all EU students.
The 2018 report of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that socio-economic status alone accounted for 13.8 per cent of maths performance across all OECD member states and more than 20 per cent in Belgium, France, Hungary and Slovakia. The figures for reading were little better, with wide disparities between the most affluent and poorest children, including a four-year gap in France, Germany and Hungary. Only 8 per cent of European students from the lowest socio-economic strata, furthermore, achieved top or high-level PISA scores, compared with double-digit figures for the general population in many EU countries.
Educational inequality is also reflected in lower retention of disadvantaged students. The likelihood of a student leaving school early due to social background is 25.5 per cent in Slovakia, 23.9 per cent in Bulgaria and 18.7 per cent in Romania.
Many factors are at play. They include availability of educational resources at home and in school, access to preschool programmes and school segregation between peers from different socio-economic groups, which often leaves poorer children in demotivating learning environments.
The EU has not yet lived up to its promise of inclusive education and the pandemic has only pushed that goal further from reach. To fulfil its commitments, the union should allocate adequate resources to the challenge.
In the short-term, this means generating funding for an EU-wide, emergency ‘recovery plan’ for children whose education has been severely hampered. The ‘catch-up tuition’ programme in England, which provides additional tutoring opportunities for students most afflicted by Covid-19, could be a model worth emulating.
Over the long haul, however, the EU should design a supranational programme, potentially as a top-up to the European Social Fund Plus, aimed at permanently eradicating persistent gaps in learning. Lessons from educational initiatives in Estonia, Finland and Ireland could be heeded.
In Finland and Ireland, funding formulae channel additional resources, including teaching assistants and digital technology, to schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students. Ireland’s programme also provides for socio-emotional support and school meals. Both programmes have been credited with helping improve performance among poorer students.
Reductions in school segregation will also be key, with data showing that vulnerable students enrolled in advantaged schools perform significantly better than their peers in disadvantaged schools. Estonia has indeed rocketed to the top of educational equality globally—and overtaken Finland as the top PISA performer in Europe—through measures such as free early childhood education, free school lunches and the classroom integration of students at different levels, abilities and economic backgrounds. The EU could incentivise best practices by diverting additional grants to countries which achieve satisfactory social integration in schools.
It would be all too easy to leave the problem of educational inequality to already cash-strapped national and municipal governments. But that would betray the commitments the EU has made and leave millions of children in the lurch, dependent on the political whims of their leaders. Through concerted action, however, the union can improve well-being for all students and put Europe on course towards a competitive, inclusive and resilient future.
Shane Markowitz is a Bratislava-based educator and an associate fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute. He holds a PhD in political science from Central European University, with a research specialisation in science and technology policy.