By Stefania Giannini, Assistant-Director General for Education at UNESCO
The arrival of COVID-19 has driven wedges of inequalities to breaking point in all corners of the earth. Already, before the arrival of the pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean was the most unequal region in the world. And if there have been recent gains in poverty and inequality reduction in the region, the ramifications of today’s global health crisis risk sending them into reverse. As we celebrate International Day of Disability, we must also remember the particular difficulties faced by learners with disabilities, who are disproportionately affected by the consequences of the pandemic. Even before schools close, learners with disabilities were 10 percentage points less likely to attend school than their peers. More than ever before, the world needs inclusive education systems, to respond to the pressure COVID-19 has put on learning for all, as much as to build resilience for future major challenges we may face.
Learning outcomes were low before COVID-19 with only half of 15-year-olds achieving minimum proficiency in reading, and the marginalised particularly at risk of falling behind. Online platforms have been an obligatory education response to school closures, and have been particularly impressive in Latin America, yet still less than half of households in the region have access to internet or a computer. Most distance learning platforms have not been designed with learners with disabilities in mind. To the pre-existing inequalities already challenging education systems in the region, therefore, the pandemic has brought additional risks of enhanced learner marginalisation and disengagement. Without urgent action, we risk losing touch altogether with the poorest communities, those with disabilities, many migrant communities, and boys, particularly in the Caribbean.
The new Regional 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report for Latin America and the Caribbean released on 5 November shows that there are many examples of strong pockets of inclusion in education found in the region, which are strong examples for other regions to draw from, and clearly demonstrate a belief in the value of diversity. But these must be built upon, with festering discrimination and segregation actively opposed. It is unfortunate that laws in 42% of countries make provisions for educating students with disabilities in separate settings while only 16% advocate for inclusive education.
The Report, All means All, written with UNESCO’s regional office, OREALC, in Santiago, and Laboratory of Education, Research and Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean (SUMMA), drives home where change is most needed. If diversity and identity are inbuilt areas of study in most countries’ curricula, the Report shows that not all groups are represented and the challenge of teaching children in their home language has yet to be effectively addressed. Some countries do not mention LGBT populations at all in their curricula. Others represent indigenous peoples in stereotyped images and situations, when they are represented at all.
Practically all countries in the region collect data on ethnicity to guide policy decisions, but many still do not carry out household surveys to get granular data on disadvantages. In the Caribbean, only 4 of 21 countries have had a publicly available household survey since 2015 to disaggregate education indicators by individual characteristics. There are still nine countries that don’t collect education data on children with disabilities. This leaves many of the most marginalised invisible in policy makers’ eyes. It allows for exclusion to carry on unchecked.
The region has the highest share of teachers already trained on inclusion compared to other regions, but many are still trying to address inequalities and cope with migratory impact without the pedagogies required. Half the teachers in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico reported a high need for professional development on teaching students with special needs.
If training is to be increased in the fact of this pandemic, it would be a missed opportunity not to wrap inclusion focused pedagogy into all the lessons provided.
All leaders at the current time are considering their best moves to emerge from the pandemic with the least damage. If we fail to invest in education today, we are setting the world on the course of more exclusion, inequality and polarization. Recovery packages without education don’t hold ground. We cannot procrastinate. We must save our future. In the words of our global education goal, SDG 4, we must urgently ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Originally published in El Universo and El País