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Monday, 14 September 2020

The education system’s post-covid prospects: An interview with the World Bank’s Amira Kazem

The education system’s post-covid prospects: An interview with the World Bank’s Amira Kazem. Over the 10 or so months since we debuted our weekly vertical focused on the education sector, the covid-19 pandemic has occupied a sizable chunk of our coverage. And unsurprisingly so: the past six months have seen the country’s education system undergo a once-in-a-lifetime shock. With the nation’s schools shuttered, mns of children had to adjust to a life of virtual learning almost overnight. The Education Ministry now faces the unenviable task of trying to recalibrate the education system in a way that both ends the months of disruption to the learning process and prevents a resurgence of the virus.

To find out more about how the pandemic will change the education system over the long term, we spoke to Amira Kazem, a senior operations officer working on the World Bank’s education projects in Egypt, who told us how the bank has responded to the crisis and what she sees lying ahead. A human development economist, Amira has worked at the World Bank since 1998 on education projects, specializing in skills development, basic and tertiary education.

The key takeaways:

  • WB education funding isn’t likely to be affected by the pandemic;
  • The digital divide is widening faster than ever before…
  • …but the rapid integration of technology into the education system may provide a way out;
  • In-class learning will remain vital even as online education becomes a mainstay;
  • The private sector needs to engage more as a key stakeholder for Egypt’s reforms to succeed.

Edited excerpts of our conversation:

Education has been a core part of the bank’s response to the pandemic: The WB has mobilized several types of support in response to the covid-19 crisis. Although much of the emergency operations that support countries’ responses to the crisis were focused on health, they also included education. The Bank provided an initial assessment of the disruption to education due to the pandemic. In addition, and jointly with Unicef, UNESCO and the World Food Programme, the WB developed a framework to guide the reopening of schools. The decision on whether to reopen schools is a difficult one, and you need to balance between containing the virus and the need to resume the education. Once the decision is taken, many protocols and conditions are needed for a safe return and the right learning conditions.

The pandemic isn’t likely to hit WB education funding in Egypt: We do not expect a delay or redirection of the agreed funding at this point. The team is in discussions with the Education Ministry to explore changes to the USD 500 mn Supporting Egypt Education Results project (below) that would better serve its response to the pandemic and its plans to reopen schools. Beyond that, future funding hasn’t been discussed and we are continuing to focus on the existing project.

In comparison to the other countries, the disruption to learning in Egypt has been relatively minor — in part thanks to the ministry's response: We recognize the ministry’s quick response to the pandemic. It created and rolled-out digital content to all grades through the Egyptian Knowledge Bank and live streaming, as well as a new digital platform for virtual classrooms in public schools and national distance education TV channels for those with no access to digital devices. Assessments and exams were also adapted to the changing conditions for primary 3-6 and preparatory 1-3 using multidisciplinary research for next grade promotion; and for secondary 1 and 2, students undertook the computer-based tests from home.

Egypt’s education reform program established the connectivity, e-learning material, and computer-based assessment system which was unique in the MENA region (outside of the GCC). Egypt is one of the least-affected MENA countries in terms of disruption to learning, but it is still affected substantially and more is still needed.

Covid is accelerating the digital divide — and a positive cultural shift: The pandemic has provided more evidence that the digital divide must be closed, but has provided an opening to do it faster. The crisis has provided a context to innovate and to accelerate and expand the use of technology in Egypt’s education system. It has led to a tremendous cultural shift, moving from resistance to an appreciation and quest for the use of technological solutions.

Equally important is the change in the culture of learning and testing. In Egypt, the crisis and experience with project-based grading changed the thinking among teachers and parents about learning and testing, moving away from rote learning and subject matter exams to more holistic and social approaches.

The teachers’ role is critical, and they need training to use technology and engage with students in a more up-to-date manner. For countries like Egypt that are moving away from teaching through memorization, remote, in-service and pre-service training to teachers are crucial. Multiple channels should be used to keep parents and communities at large informed and engaged in the changes to how we educate.

Online education is here to stay but in-class learning will remain vital: Online education will be a mainstay in the education system in the future, but it will not replace the crucial role of the teacher and the classroom. The covid situation continues to be uncertain. Still, nothing can replace the rich social experience of being in school, and nothing yet can replace in-person presence, particularly for preschool and primary education students. Thus, online education is part of the mitigation measures that have been set up as a response to the pandemic. Remote learning (as compared to online learning) is likely to take a greater share as we move towards the new normal, in terms of online learning, and educational TV and radio for students that do not have access to digital devices.

Covid-19 might have helped the ministry accelerate public acceptance of technology, including changing parents’ perceptions and teachers’ skills. In the next academic year, the ministry may adopt a blended learning approach, and will work on expanding the available hardware, resources, and platforms to over 20 mn students.

The private sector needs to engage more as a key stakeholder: The private sector is ultimately the first beneficiary of an improved public education system and the first victim of an unreformed school system. With that in mind, employers and the private sector would be most encouraged to engage much more as a key stakeholder and be ready to invest money into public education — and not just private education. Nowadays, you can see inspiring models where the private sector is engaged in technological schools under technical education. You also find private publishers contributing to the Egyptian Knowledge Bank. The international experience has a wealth of examples of ways to involve the private sector in summer internships, career guidance, training of instructors, work-based training and many others that can improve the school-to-work transition.

Assisting education reforms: In September 2018, Egypt embarked on a major education reform program. The aim of the national sector reform is to “bring learning back to the classroom” and equip students with skills that prepare them for life as well as for the labor market. This program targets 22 mn students, 1.3 mn teachers and 50k public schools, and focuses on promoting the foundations of learning towards the skills that matter to the citizens and workers of the 21st century.

The World Bank’s USD 500 mn Supporting Egypt Education Reform Project” supports this home-grown reform and specifically a set of agreed key results, which are a subset of the national reform program. It supports increasing access to quality early childhood education and enhancing the capacity of teachers, school leaders and supervisors. The project helps to catalyze the use of digital resources for teaching and learning, and the introduction of a new computer-based examination system that regulates secondary graduation and admission to universities.

Like all other WB-funded projects, this initiative is being implemented by the government. Being a results-based project, the WB provides implementation support and authorizes disbursement once the agreed results are achieved and verified by a third party. This means that the ministry assumes a leading role in engaging international and local private sector firms to support reform and project implementation.

The WB team also provides technical support to a number of areas that are first agreed with the ministry. This could be in terms of providing capacity building or providing feedback to draft documents. For example, the WB — with additional financial support from the UK Embassy in Cairo — supports the development of a diagnostics study for kindergarten where the bank team develops the research design, sampling, training of enumerators, and data analysis, while the project funds and manages the actual data collection activities.

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