Catching-up on Learning after Lockdown: More time at school can make a difference, but only alongside investment to improve the quality of education

Young Peruvian girl sitting outside her house in the jungle
Kath Ford, Catherine Porter and introduction by Helen Grant, UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education
27 July 2021


"It’s a sad reality that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in education around the world.  Girls and young women have been disproportionately affected by school closures, with out of school girls at a higher risk of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and human trafficking.  

That’s where the UK and Kenya co-hosted Global Education Summit comes in, convening world leaders to invest in quality education for all children and raise $5 billion over five years to get 175 million children learning.

With less than 10 years until Sustainable Development Goal 4 target date of 2030, we, collectively, cannot afford any roll-back in learning progress. We cannot let this happen, and the UK Government will not let this happen. We will continue to champion every girls’ right to 12 years of quality education"   Helen Grant, UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education


After a year of interrupted education, governments and aid agencies are now grappling with how to address varying levels of lost learning, with debate increasingly focusing on the potential to extend the school day, including through offering additional summer school during holiday periods.

Previous international evidence, however, has shown that simply increasing students’ learning time has not been particularly effective in improving educational outcomes, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Likewise, there are numerous cautionary tales of the lack of long-term impact for initiatives that focus on specific technical resources (for example, new IT equipment) without being accompanied by other improvements, for example, in pedagogy and teachers’ skills and expertise.

New evidence from Oxford University’s Young Lives study funded by the UK’s Foreign, Development & Commonwealth Office (FCDO), suggests that extending the school day can significantly improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged students, when combined with targeted investments to improve the quality of education; notably through better pedagogical (teaching) resources, additional school staff, increased teacher training and better IT resources.


Interrupted education is widening educational inequalities with those from the poorest households and rural communities most affected, particularly vulnerable girls and young women


Findings from the Listening to Young Lives at Work COVID-19 phone survey, which has been following 12,000 young people in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru and Vietnam, since 2002, show that young people from poor households and rural communities, especially vulnerable girls and young women, who have been hardest hit by interrupted education.  Persistent learning gaps, worsened by a digital divide in online learning, has left a substantial proportion of vulnerable young people at risk of being left behind and never returning to the classroom.

In Peru, which continues to suffer one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world, 18 per cent of 18-19 year old former students interviewed had dropped out of education by the end of 2020, with those from poorest backgrounds most affected; it is not yet clear how many managed to return at the start of the new academic year in March 2021. In Ethiopia, 39% of 19-year-old girls, who were enrolled in education in 2020, had not engaged in any form of learning (including online learning) since school closures began. Among those most likely to have been disadvantaged by interruptions to their education, it is often girls from poor and marginalised communities who are worst affected. In India, the results showed a 23 percentage point drop between 2020 enrolment and actual attendance among 18-19 year old girls from Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, compared to an 11-point drop for boys in this group.


Extending the school day in Peru, alongside investments to improve school quality, has led to significant improvement in learning outcomes


Efforts in Peru to improve education in public secondary schools prior to the pandemic included the Jornada Escolar Completa, or ‘Complete School Day’ (JEC) reform, implemented in over 2,000 secondary schools since 2015.

The JEC reform extends the normal school day by two hours and provides participating schools with a package of targeted investments to improve the quality of schools and teaching: this includes improved physical infrastructure, improved school management (including additional teaching staff and increased salaries for teachers and principals), and targeted pedagogical support (including improved IT resources).

The programme pays special attention to tutoring students, especially those who are falling behind, with increased numbers of psychologists available at school to offer specialist socio-emotional support.

By comparing learning outcomes from students in JEC schools to those in non-participating schools, both before and after the programme began, results have shown considerable improvement in educational outcomes for participating students, particularly in maths and reading comprehension. There was also a significant improvement in technical skills and socio-emotional (soft) skills.

Unlike many other initiatives in low- and middle-income countries, the JEC reform has been successful in improving education outcomes from within the public sector, without outsourcing to private education providers.  This is likely to be particularly important for policy makers to enable the large-scale initiatives necessary to support a generation of children and young people to catch up with their studies, particularly those from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds.


Strong school leadership matters


Additional analysis of public secondary schools in disadvantaged areas of Peru, shows that high-performing schools place strong value on the leadership and specialist knowledge of school principals (headteachers), investing in school leadership programmes. 

Positive school discipline was shown as important for both classroom behaviour and effective learning; students repeatedly fed back that this allows them to pay attention and learn better. Maintaining positive discipline was seen as a way for schools to care for their students and produced pride among teachers, pupils and parents.


Effective schools prioritise the quality of teaching and teachers’ professional development


High-performing schools were more likely to implement clear policies aimed at continually improving the quality of teaching through monitoring teachers’ performance. Successful schools not only create strategies focused on what is best for student learning, but also promote teachers’ ongoing professional development.

Promoting teacher collaboration allows teachers to learn from each other’s pedagogical strategies and come up with joint solutions to shared difficulties; effective schools enable an environment where teachers can cooperate and work as a team.


Teaching practices that foster strong teacher–student relations are also important for school effectiveness


Results show that teachers from effective schools are aware of students’ contexts, the difficulties they face, and what they need in order to improve their learning outcomes. With that knowledge, teachers are able to tailor their teaching strategies and establish positive relations that benefit both high- and low-achieving students, helping to build a conducive learning environment in the classroom.

Providing regular feedback to students on their work, peer-mentoring strategies (encouraging high-achieving students to help their classmates understand lesson content) and the provisions of extra learning materials tailored to the specific needs of students are also shown to be successful strategies in high-performing schools.


COVID-19 recovery plans present an opportunity to improve the quality of education and ‘build back better’


While addressing the root causes of inequality in education requires a broad package of economic and social measures, this new evidence demonstrates that there is still much teachers and school principals can do to help improve educational outcomes from within their school, with the right support from policymakers.

Increasing the number of teaching hours, alongside targeted additional resources to improve school effectiveness, can make a difference for disadvantaged students, even when their socio-economic background has not given them the best start in life.

By combining extended time at school with improving the quality of schools and teaching, COVID-19 recovery plans present an opportunity to help address persistent long term educational inequalities in low- and middle-income countries.  This will be particularly important for improving learning outcomes for disadvantaged girls and young women, whose interrupted education during the pandemic is often exacerbated by increased time spent on additional household work and childcare.