The true extent of damage to schools from Covid-19

If any one country had schools that were designed to cope with the Covid pandemic, it would be Finland, which already had a highly digital education system that made the logistics of distance learning surprisingly easy.

Yet even in Finland, the impact has been stark. At Kulosaari Secondary School, it took a year and a half for teaching to return to normal after the Finnish government declared a state of emergency in March 2020 in response to the rapid spread of Covid.­­

The school building, located on a small island in suburban Helsinki, was completely shut for only a few months. But local spikes in infections meant hybrid learning continued until late 2021, with groups of students rotating between social distancing in classrooms and dialling in remotely.

“It was really evident that the Covid period was heavy for students and I think we are still paying the toll,” says Esko Häyrynen, a maths and philosophy teacher at the school.

“More than specific knowledge, they struggled with how to learn, how to behave in a group and with what is expected when they come to school. That trickled down into their learning.”

This impact of the pandemic was not unique to Häyrynen’s students. New data from the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment shows an unprecedented global decline in attainment between 2018 and 2022.

The Pisa rankings, released every three years, are the primary benchmark for comparing education outcomes between countries and have often provided the impetus for reforms. The latest data, delayed a year by the pandemic, gives an authoritative and detailed insight into the level disruption that education systems have suffered.

The principal findings are dramatic. Reading and maths performance declined in the majority of education systems between 2018 and 2022, with developed economies experiencing the most impact.

In 2022, the average 15-year-old in the OECD lagged behind their counterparts in 2018 by three-quarters of a year in maths and half a year in reading. In the other 44 education systems that participated in the report, mostly developing economies, the learning loss in both subjects was closer to a third of a year.

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The release of the latest Pisa data comes as many governments around the world conduct a retrospective analysis of Covid, to assess how best to respond to a future pandemic. The impact on schools has been an important part of the UK’s continuing Covid inquiry.

The new data explores not just the impact of the pandemic, but also highlights longer-term trends in educational outcomes around the world. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, warns that Covid was not the only cause of the decline in standards in advanced western economies. Instead, it reinforced trends that were already evident in many OECD countries.

“When you look at the recent trends in the context of longer-term trends, you get a very different picture,” he says. Factors such as the overall level of investment in education, the status and pay levels of teachers and the academic expectations of students have all influenced educational outcomes.

One striking trend over the past decade has been the consistent deterioration of average reading and science scores in the OECD. Maths attainment stagnated in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Meanwhile some economies outside Europe and Asia, such as Peru and Qatar, have seen marked improvement since 2012.

“The developed world no longer has a monopoly over good education,” says Schleicher. “The world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated countries.”

Obstacles to education

The coronavirus pandemic had a profound effect on the health and educational attainment of children across the world.

On the whole, countries that imposed shorter lockdowns were more likely to have relatively higher attainment, but how schools organised disruption and distance learning was also key. Education systems were more resilient when children had the skills to learn autonomously and felt more supported by their teachers, the Pisa analysis found.

In Singapore, ranked the top-performing education system by Pisa, blended learning was permanently introduced into the curriculum following the pandemic. All secondary school students now spend about two days a month undertaking self-directed study at home, supported by state-funded technology for students

For most students, self-directed study was a larger obstacle than using online learning systems. Nearly half of students surveyed by the OECD said they had problems motivating themselves to work on a weekly basis.

General wellbeing and students’ sense of belonging at school also deteriorated more in countries with longer school closures. Häyrynen says he noticed social media was affecting students’ mental health and ability to study even before the pandemic. More time spent away from the classroom only made them more glued to their devices.

“It’s more difficult for them to concentrate on studying for long periods of time because everything is done on a computer and notifications are pinging all the time,” he says. “That has made it harder for them to catch up [on lost learning].”

Use of social media is a problem across the OECD, with one in four students saying they were distracted by other students using digital devices in most maths lessons in 2022. This meant they were on average three-quarters of a year behind their peers in maths attainment after controlling for socio-economic background.

However, the pandemic has also amplified some longstanding criticisms of Pisa data. Many advanced economies consistently failed to meet sampling standards, potentially flattering the results as the schools and students that respond are not always representative of the wider system.

John Jerrim, a professor of education and social statistics at UCL, says this is an even more acute issue in the most recent report given that truancy rates have risen markedly in countries such as the US and UK following coronavirus lockdowns.

“We know that those kids [who are absent] tend to be more low achieving or lower socio-economic status, so it is not necessarily a comparable sample over time or across countries,” he says.

Other critics argue that Pisa rankings give a misleading picture as the difference in performance between some countries is not statistically significant and methodological issues mean the headline scores can be over-interpreted.

The bigger picture

Despite these shortcomings, the data also illustrates some long-term trends. One is that investing more in education correlates with better performance only up to a point. Pisa data suggests that the link breaks down beyond $75,000 of total spend per student between the ages of six and 15, and that for the average OECD country, which spends more than $100,000 per student, how that money is spent is more important than the raw amount.

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One significant long-term problem in better-off countries is teacher shortages, which affected almost half of students in the OECD in 2022, double the share in 2018, according to headteachers. The problem is particularly acute in economies such as Germany, where three-quarters of students were affected by teacher shortages, and France where there has been a fourfold increase in students affected since 2018.

John Bangs, senior adviser at global teachers’ union federation Education International, says poor pay and low status are universal drivers of staff shortages. “Countries with holistic teacher policies, negotiated with their unions, which focus on wellbeing and professional development — those are the countries which manage to retain their teachers,” he says. “The other big factor is that teacher salaries have to be comparatively good with equivalent professions.”

Countries where teaching is a high-status profession tend to top the rankings. Teachers in Singapore are some of the most likely to feel valued by society, according to the OECD’s international teaching survey, and the city state’s education system was once again the highest scoring across reading, maths and science. Singapore has been one of the top two education systems for maths since it joined Pisa in 2009.

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Other East Asian economies also ranked highly, having proved resilient to the impact of the pandemic. Despite school closures, Japan and South Korea improved or maintained performance in all subjects between 2018 and 2022.

Schleicher says successful Asian education systems are geared around high expectations and strong social relationships between teachers and students.

“Teachers spend a lot of time with their students, they run social clubs, they clean the classroom with them after lessons,” he says. “But I observe a trend in the wealthy countries towards commodifying education. Students became consumers and teachers became service providers.”

Even in the leading East Asian education systems where overall performance improved, achieving equity for students from different socio-economic backgrounds remained a challenge. In Singapore and on average across the OECD, the attainment gap between poorer and better-off students widened between 2018 and 2022 to the highest levels in a decade.

Seven education systems became more equitable, but only in Argentina, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia was that because outcomes improved for disadvantaged students. In most countries, equity in maths remained stable but performance declined for students of all socio-economic backgrounds.

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Some of the largest declines in both equity and overall attainment occurred in Finland, once regarded as one of the more successful European education systems. Learning loss since 2018 was almost three times the OECD average in reading and four times higher in science, but educational outcomes in the Nordic country were deteriorating even before the pandemic.

Schleicher says this was because Finland relaxed its academic expectations for students. “The lesson for me is that we have to achieve student wellbeing not at the expense of academic success, but through academic success,” he says.

There have been significant changes to the Finnish education system in recent years, with traditional subjects scrapped in favour of an approach called “phenomenon-based learning” that requires students to draw on multiple subjects to solve problems.

It is also unusual in having no standardised national tests, aside from the matriculation exam at the end of secondary school for students applying to university.

“When [Pisa] first came out, we thought Finland was the recipe for success, but 20 years later we do not know whether those things have been part of the solution or part of the problem,” adds Schleicher.

For many policymakers, Estonia is the new model in Europe. The small Baltic country is one of the few education systems outside east Asia that consistently ranks in the top 10 of the Pisa rankings.

Estonia’s education minister, Kristina Kallas, says its community-based system that hands schools considerable autonomy over resources and curriculum is hard to replicate in other European countries. But there are successful practices in Estonia that can be replicated elsewhere.

“The common aspects of [successful systems] are teacher competence and autonomy, and the student mindset . . . to aim high and work hard,” she says.

Although children start school aged seven, later than in most other developed economies, most benefit from Estonia’s high-quality pre-school system where teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree. Almost 90 per cent of children are enrolled in pre-school for at least three years, compared with the OECD average of 57 per cent.

“[Children] have very affordable and accessible pre-school. It’s still mostly play and developing social skills, but it is a pedagogical approach and we have high quality requirements,” says Kallas.

The Estonian education system still faces many of the challenges apparent in other developed economies, with significant learning loss during the pandemic and a growing shortage of teachers. To address this, the government has introduced more support for students who have fallen behind, such as an optional extra year of teaching.

Kallas says a demographic shift has caused labour shortages across the economy, so teaching needs to offer an attractive career path to compete with other sectors for graduates.

“What young people want is a motivational job where they can develop themselves,” she says. “We are trying to make the teaching profession a very autonomous career with professional development.” The government has also committed to raising teacher pay to 120 per cent of the average wage by 2027.

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Although the Pisa rankings are often used to gauge the relative effectiveness of education systems, experts warn against using the headline numbers as a basis for significant policy changes.

Sam Freedman, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think-tank in the UK, says that “what is really useful is [data on] how systems work, rather than the ranking”.

Freedman was a policy adviser at the Department for Education when then education secretary Michael Gove overhauled the curriculum and structure of the school system in England to address the country’s middling performance in the Pisa rankings.

Freedman now says this was a naive approach. “There was an overestimate of how much doing specific policies would shift [the UK] towards another country,” he says.

But addressing the structural and pandemic-related challenges is important for developed economies, as improving education performance leads to better labour market outcomes. Countries with better Pisa performance tend to have a lower share of 15 to 19-year-olds not in education, employment or training, according OECD research.

Schleicher says it is difficult for economies to overcome the negative economic impact of poor schooling. “If you haven’t got decent outcomes early on, you are unlikely to benefit from continued education and training . . . and you’re unlikely to catch up,” he says.

“I am more worried about countries in the OECD area than many countries outside, in terms of stagnation or decline in outcomes.”


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