By Elizabeth Njambi 

COVID-19 has pushed over a billion kids out of school. What must we do right now to ensure this isn’t a “lost generation”? How does inequality affect access to education? And why do private schools present such a challenge to quality education in developing countries? To show us what needs to be done, we’re joined in this episode by the inimitable Dr. Prachi Srivastava – Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario, whose fascinating research digs deep on inequality, and the global education crisis caused by COVID-19. We’re also thrilled to have with us Linda Oduor-Noah, a brilliant education activist based in Kenya, fighting the privatization of education and advancing the right to education for all.

This is episode 4 of the EQUALS podcast Season 3 – and if you’re joining us for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, to thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, Darrick Hamilton on racism in the economy, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.

The following is a truncated “transcript” but you can listen to the full episode below or on your preferred podcast platform!

Dr. Prachi Srivastava

Long-term impacts of COVID-19 on education

Nadia kicks off the interview asking Dr. Prachi, “What are some of the longer-term impacts on education equality that could result from the coronavirus?”

Dr. Prachi stating the status of education currently and she explains, “… The school closures … reached a peak and they … affected between 1.6 to 1.7 billion children and that roughly equates to over 90% to 92% of learners. If you look at that in terms of population proportions, you’re looking at almost 95% of the total population of children and youth. And in terms of humanity, … we’re talking about roughly a fifth of the world’s population, right? That’s 20% … of all the people that inhabit our Earth (that) have been affected by this directly. That’s the population breakdown. … Roughly 900 million children did not return or returned in precarious circumstances, even when schools reopened generally. And that has to do a lot with infrastructure issues. It has to do with some of the lingering issues that education systems faced even before the pandemic. … Over the last 20 to 30 years, we’ve seen an underfunding of education systems and we’ve seen a hallowing out of those bureaucracies. … When you’re underfunding and you’re not hiring enough people to make sure that the system has officers in charge, or people that are actually monitoring the system on the ground, when there’s an emergency, all of that compounds.”

Nadia then asks what the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be on inequality and education.

Dr. Prachi breaks it down explaining, “… There is a modelling study that came out, … months ago and the figures there are just shocking. They model what it could mean in terms of having just 4 months of school closures and they model that globally in terms of earning and learning loss and what they find in terms of earning loss, is that 4 months of school closures could result in lifetime earning loss of this generation globally, of 10.6 trillion dollars. It’s massive. … And I don’t think people have really appreciated what that means for the Next Generation.”

Impact on Girls

Max asks about the impact on girls; and how that’s played out in different countries around the world.

Dr. Prachi states, “So, what we’re going to see, is the way that different groups of people are inserted into our societies is what really determines how badly they are going to be affected. So, globally we know that in many many countries girls tend to be in that group, but then there are a bunch of other cross-cutting multi-dimensional factors, right? You could be a rural girl. You could be a rural girl from a lower-cast community; from a religious minority; from an underserved area. All of those things will compound to make the situation better or worse depending on what is valued in the society in which you live and what is devalued in the society in which you live. … We’ve already seen that there are inequitable effects on girls and women as a result of the pandemic. …”

Low-fee Private Schooling

Drawing on Dr. Prachi’s experience, Mas asks her, “Can you tell us what you think about (low-fee/ low-cost private schools) as a kind of solution to the problems we have with schooling?

Dr. Prachi quickly answers, “… We have to be cognizant of the fact that the reason … that we saw this rise of low-fee private schools over the last 20 or so years, is because there has been a hollowing out of good-quality, State provision and that is a result of under-financing in terms of the domestic budget, but also in terms of the aid priorities and also (a) broader kind of global discourse around paying lip-service to education-for-all but not really investing in those systems in the way that we should.”

She continues, “There is a real need for some of those providers to come in, but it really is a failure in terms of broad, good-quality provision across-the-board and where those providers do come in, there are still real concerns around equity. Who really can afford to send their children to the schools? I think in terms of really looking at what we mean when we talk about low-fee or low-cost schools, there (has not) been a lot of clarity around that. So, I’ve been pretty specific to define when I say low-fee schools. That for me, for my studies, means that the school cannot charge more than what a daily wage earner earns in day; they cannot charge more than that in a month. … I don’t see this as a particularly hopeful situation, and it worries me to no end.”

International Private School Chains and Technology

Max inquires further, “Can I ask you about the big chains of international private schools that are expanding to the market in poor countries trying to provide schooling using technology; trying to kind of use many more unskilled teachers and rely on tablets and teaching by computer? Can you explain their worldview? How they see the future of education in poor countries?

According to Dr. Prachi, “When big capital comes in to finance on short timelines in education, all of this is driven by a rush for impact and so technology is driven by that impact. But we need to be very targeted and we need to understand that those initiatives are going to have some impact, but they cannot replace well-functioning education systems with full coverage of good quality (education).”  


To end the interview Nadia asks Dr. Prachi, “How do we get there? And are you hopeful that we will get there?”

Dr. Prachi answers, “… It means focusing on all the countries and particularly focusing on pockets within those countries. … So, we need to think about our solutions in a much more globally connected way and a more cross-sectoral way. Maybe if health is going to get more budget, because we think that it will; and if social protection is going to get more budget because we think that it will; then are there parts of the education system that can be cross-financed? Because it actually serves those goals, right? Then I think you do have a way forward and in this I think that our countries that are low-income countries and that have had to be dealing with emergencies pre-dating the pandemic, (are) actually going to be ahead of the game in terms of having that modelling.”

Max and Nadia then speak with Linda Oduor-Noah, to get the status of affairs n the groun in Kenya.

Max kicks off the interview asking, “… In your experience, what does it look like from there?”

Linda explains what it was like for the population to adjust to school closures and finally says, “… I think any inequality that we’d seen before, was amplified during this period but I think we’ll be seeing the impacts of this period for a long time.”

Nadia then asks how low-fee private schools have responded to COVID-19.

Linda sighs and answers, “… I remember immediately after lockdown was announced, we started hearing from people on the ground – teachers that teach at Bridge International Academies – (about) how their salaries had been slashed to 10% of what they were earning. Now this isn’t a surprise to us because we have been undertaking research on chains of low-fee private schools for a long time and we knew from their track record, for them profit is the bottom line. And so if they’re not making money than they’re not going to meet any of the other obligations you’d expect a school to meet. There’s no mercy shown to students or to parents as long as they can’t pay the fees.”

She continues, “And we also know that they started teaching via WhatsApp. A lot of parents could not access this platform and so children continue being excluded from the school, not only for financial reasons, but just because they cannot access the tools that are being used.”

She adds, “They started asking for support from the government. They asked for concessional loans to be provided. I don’t think this is the way that we should go. The Ministry of Education has very scarce resources and whatever resources they get, should go towards strengthening the public education system not towards a loan service that has not been very transparent.”

She concludes saying, “So, private schools in Kenya are a very short-term option solution, but the long-term solution would be to invest in the public education system to make sure there’s enough classes, enough teachers, enough space: rather than trying to fund, or to shift their obligation to low-cost service providers.”

Nadia then asks, “What would you say that this pandemic has taught us about the education system in Kenya? What’s working? What’s not working?”

Linda: Schools have been underfunded for a very long time. We know that teachers are not properly equipped. We know that there’s not enough public schools in places where they’re needed. And so, all these things need to be looked at urgently and strategically, especially given the fact that financing is declining in all quarters. So, I think we need to be very strategic about what our priorities are and the values that are driving our priorities as well. And they’ll need to contend with the trade-offs that people are actually living with. Do I have to pay extra activities or extra water fees at school or do my children eat? Or do we have a place to stay? These are the trade-offs that parents are thinking of and I think sometimes they actually forget who the parents are and what sacrifices they’re making to ensure their children go to school.

Max them follows asking, “Linda, would you expect that there would be a big increase in the numbers of children out of school in Kenya in the medium to long-term?”

Linda answers, “… Prior to COVID-19, we already had a huge out-of-school population. I mean 800,000 to 1 million children is not a small number of children, right? And so now with COVID and the economic impacts it’s going to have on citizens, I do expect a lot of children will drop out of the system definitely in the medium term. In the long-term depending on what the policymakers and decision-makers decide, we could start reversing the trend once again, but … I saw the recent announcements in the UK (of) foreign aid to education being cut. The fact that a lot of our governments in sub-Saharan Africa are still aid-dependent; what does that mean for the millions of children that were leaning on those grants? Yes, it does look a bit dire at the moment, but if people start thinking strategically from now then hopefully the tide could shift in in the long-term.” Do listen, subscribe and share with friends and family! Please leave us reviews on your preferred podcast platform (such as Apple Podcasts). It helps us grow our audience. Do follow us on Twitter @EQUALSHope and leave us your feedback here.