Associate Head of Research at Plymouth Institute of Education
Associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies

Globally, schools and other education providers have been forced to close in response to managing the COVID-19 pandemic. This means children worldwide have seen their education disrupted for more than a year – but, crucially, it has also highlighted the inequalities in access to quality education provision. The challenge has been more than just an issue of remote learning, with questions surrounding both the equality of access and understandings of what quality education really means.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal Four seeks to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable education’, but, even prior to the pandemic, there were challenges in meeting these aims. For example, Goal 4.2 on gender equality (ensuring all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development and care and pre-primary education) had already highlighted the inequalities in education access that exist globally. Participation rates had been increasing, but varied considerably between countries, with girls being less likely to attend. In May 2021, the G7 nations pledged to help 40 million girls into education, with Boris Johnson citing it as a ‘smart’ post-COVID investment. However, the ambitious numeric goal alongside the notion of investment actually draws attention to the fact that this is more than just a numbers game.

Even prior to COVID, it was evident that providing early childhood development and care, and pre-primary education was not the issue, but ensuring the quality of that provision. Internationally, it is recognised that quality early childhood education is an investment in the foundations of children’s lifelong learning, with the most disadvantaged arguably having the most to gain from quality provision. The focus on quality has drawn attention to the importance of having educators that are well qualified and who can develop pedagogical approaches that facilitate and extend children’s learning. The challenges of remote learning have undoubtedly made us all more aware that it is not just about providing education, but that the method and practice of teaching will influence how knowledge and skills are imparted – particularly when working with children of pre-school age.

While early education providers across the UK have reopened, and children have been able to return to in-person education, this has not been the case in all parts of the world, with those who already had some of the poorest participation rates continuing to see closures. The concern is that this is not just an interruption to early education provision, but that children are missing out on vital access to quality early childhood development and care that will be an interruption to providing the foundations to their lifelong learning.

So what’s the solution? The risk of global goals is that they imply global models of delivery. Within education, the focus on lifelong learning assumes predetermined indicators as to the knowledge and skills that will be required for the future.

However, the last 18 months have demonstrated that it is incredibly hard to predict the future, let alone know the knowledge and skills that will best prepare us for it.

Proponents of contextualised approaches to education, have long indicated that while much can be learnt from how education is delivered in different international contexts, education is not about a one-size-fits-all model. Global discourses on education often prescribe understandings as to what children ‘should’ do within education contexts, frequently driven by Western society’s predictions as to what children will require for the future. However, as relativists would argue, this is just one way of seeing the world.

While COVID is undoubtedly a global challenge, where common measures will be key to its demise, education is not the same. The pledge for equality of access to quality education is to be commended, but this should not be confused with an assumption that there is a global model of education that is going to be the foundation to all children’s lifelong learning. The interruption to education in the last 18 months has highlighted a range of educational inequalities, particularly when considering the global dynamic. But while there is a global commonality in the interruption to education, there needs to be an opportunity for contextualised responses to securing the ‘smart investment’ in education for the future.

COP26: Examining the evidence for global action 

The UN Climate Change Convention in 2021 – also known as COP26 – represented the largest coming together of world leaders to address climate change, and find real solutions. The race is truly on to slow climate change and protect our planet, improve global health and re-build post-pandemic economies through a green recovery.

For our part, it is more important than ever that researchers take a whole-systems approach in the search for solutions. We need to address local environmental priorities alongside national and international goals, if net-zero carbon and sustainable blue-green growth is to be achieved. Our researchers share how systems thinking through transdisciplinary research is key to providing evidence for global action ahead of COP26.

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