Learning through and from COVID-19 DFID’s response to education during the pandemic

A briefing from the Send My Friend Coalition, with Malala Fund, Girls Not Brides and ONE

The scale of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education systems and on children and young people’s learning and wellbeing is increasing daily. This is a global crisis which is preventing children and adolescents in every country from fulfilling their right to quality, safe and inclusive education. With Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), the global community committed to realising the right to quality education for all by 2030. Data has already shown that the world is off- track to meet SDG4.[1] The COVID-19 crisis jeopardises this promise more than ever before.

The world’s most marginalised children will be hit hardest

Out of the total population of students enrolled in education globally, UNESCO estimates that over 90% have been affected by school closures due to COVID-19. School closures will hit the world’s most marginalised children the hardest, including girls, the poorest, children with disabilities, and refugees, migrant and internally displaced children. For these children, the pandemic could mean losing precious progress gained to date on realising their right to education and the achievement of SDG4.

The poorest children and those without strong support structures at home will also face significant challenges during this time. The UN notes ‘Poor households have less secure sources of income and fewer assets […] and fewer tools to connect to distance learning whether a television, a radio, or an online device, and are more likely to pull children out of schools.’[2] During the Ebola outbreak when schools were closed only 40% of children asked in Liberia and 30% of children asked in Sierra Leone said that home learning was taking place, mostly the occasional reading of old notes. Closures also deprive children and young people of protective environments and access to sources of life-saving information and psychosocial support. Recent World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020[3].  Disruptions to school feeding have also caused nearly 9 million children to no longer receive World Food Programme supported meals.[4]

For girls, school closures present significant and urgent danger. Over 111 million girls are living in the world’s least developed countries where getting an education is already a struggle.[5] These are contexts of extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and crisis where gender disparities in education are highest. In Mali, Niger and South Sudan — three countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls — closures have forced over 4 million girls out of school. Based on evidence from the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016, the Malala Fund estimates that 10 million more secondary school aged girls could be out of school following COVID-19.[6]

The evidence from Ebola in Sierra Leone also suggests that girls are much less likely to home study than boys, possibly because of their greater domestic and caring responsibilities.[7] Many girls may never return to school, further entrenching gender gaps in education, increasing the likelihood of child marriage and exploitation,[8] and undermining girls longer term opportunities.

Quarantine measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 are already exacerbating the risks of intimate partner violence and other forms of GBV, as households are placed under increased stress by health and economic burdens[9]. These trends are likely to increase around the world, as evidence shows that all the forms of violence against girls and young women faced outside of emergencies are multiplied in humanitarian contexts. In parts of Sierra Leone, for example, the teenage pregnancy rate increased by 65% during the Ebola epidemic[10]. Disruption of social and protective networks (hotlines, shelters and protection services) and decreased access to services, through movement restrictions and service provision all exacerbate the risk of violence against girls and women[11].

Children with disabilities often face multiple challenges to accessing inclusive education.[12] This is exacerbated during times of crisis. Before COVID-19 struck, over half of children with disabilities were out-of-school at the lower secondary level in low and lower-middle income countries.[13] Now, even more children will face significant gaps in education. Distance learning activities and tools, including radio, TV and online lessons are often not made accessible to children and youth with disabilities, including those with visual or hearing impairments. Similarly, children from minority ethnic groups or refugees and migrants may be locked out of distance learning due to linguistic or cultural barriers.

Refugee and migrant children face more barriers than language, however. Access to services in refugee camps is already significantly limited, and the impact of COVID-19 could exacerbate these challenges. Children living in crowded camps are not afforded the luxury of social distancing, meaning the virus could spread more quickly and cause widespread and long-term impacts. Children on the move who were already out of school, including displaced or migrant children, may now face even greater gaps in their education as the school year is disrupted.

As the world enters an economic downturn, all children, including the most marginalised, also face the risk of fewer resources allocated to education systems. Following the 2008 economic crisis, education retained its share of national expenditure but lower GDPs reduced the amount of money going to education systems.[14] On top of fewer domestic resources allocated to education, shrinking aid budgets could mean education systems becoming even more underfunded, leaving the poorest and most marginalised children behind.

Urgent action is required

The UK Government must urgently work in collaboration with national and international partners to mitigate the effect of school closures and keep children safe and learning.

Inclusive access to emergency distance learning, with psychosocial support and social emotional learning components during and after the COVID-19 crisis, must be guaranteed.

Planning for the safe reopening of schools should start immediately. Governments should utilise the framework developed by UNESCO, the World Food Programme, World Bank and UNICEF to reopen schools as soon as it is safe to do so, recognising that this must be guided by scientific advice. Special attention should be paid to health and hygiene measures, the mitigation of risk for education staff and pupils, and ensuring the education system is prepared to address possible protection issues on reopening of schools.

When it is decided that schools should reopen, additional catch-up classes or Accelerated Education Programmes (AEPs) may be needed after children return to school to ensure they can reach their educational potential. All interventions must be developed with equity and child rights at their core.

Building back better

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any crisis the world has experienced in the last century. However, it is also an opportunity to reassess the resilience and stability of our education systems and build back better. The innovative solutions developed and scaled up (at rapid pace) during the pandemic should be used to improve education systems around the world. Now more than ever before we have the opportunity to strengthen critical elements of education systems around the world, including implementing initiatives such as gender- responsive education sector planning (GRESP).

The COVID-19 emergency, while unique this century, is unfortunately not likely to be a one-off crisis. Evidence from the World Health Organisation suggests that there is an apparent increase in infectious diseases caused by ‘the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways-of-living’.[15] Climate change is also leading to an increase in natural disasters and resource depletion, leading to many more children being on the move and possibly out of education.[16] The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need to strengthen education systems in the face of these non-conflict crises clear – the world must use the lessons from the pandemic and “build back better”, addressing education systems’ past weaknesses and ensuring a stronger, more equitable future for all.


In order to minimise the gap in learning for all children and protect the hard-fought progress on SDG4, DFID should:


  • Provide significant financial support to close the education financing gap in the COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan.
  • Provide clarity on short term funding planning and delivery targets on its inclusive education programmes.
  • Demonstrate its global leadership on education by urgently pressing other donors to commit additional and sustained funding to education and the COVID-19 response, including to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and building on commitment to Education Cannot Wait (ECW).
  • Use its position in ECW and GPE funds to ensure the application and approval processes are aligned to reduce the burden on already stretched country teams.
  • Invest in schools and teachers, including the continuity of teacher salaries, and work with teachers and their unions to strengthen distance learning options and ensure the best and safest possible return to school.
  • Ensure that all funding to support school construction meets DFID’s policy on standards of accessibility for disabled people[17];

Monitoring and Evaluation

  • Invest in monitoring and evaluation of COVID-19 programming, ensuring there are ringfenced resources for M&E and disaggregated data collection in funding announcements from the outset to inform future responses and systems strengthening.

Education and protection

  • Child protection risks and risks of gender-based violence, must be assessed, monitored and responded to during responses to COVID-19, including in displacement camps and host communities and in quarantine situations.
  • Recognise and actively promote the critical role of education in supporting health strategies as well as programmes for economic and social development.
  • Ensure all actors involved in the delivery of distance education, including teachers and parents, have the knowledge, skills and support to mitigate the risks of gender-based violence and prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. Include access to easy to understand information on safe referral practices. Guidance should be given on the use of online platforms, mobile devices and other measures to mitigate child protection concerns.


  • Scale up its support to non-formal learning, investing in tech, low tech and no tech (not-for-profit) solutions that reach every child, including the most marginalised girls and children with disabilities. Resources could include inclusive take-home materials, interactive radio instruction, education television programming for all ages, online/SMS learning, and resources for parents, recognising they cannot fill the gap.
  • Ensure programme scheduling and learning structures are flexible and allow self-paced learning so as not to deter girls who often disproportionately shoulder the burden of care, and children with disabilities who may need adjustments.
  • Ensure distance learning materials are gender sensitive and disability inclusive.


  • Strengthen the leadership and meaningful participation of children, including the most marginalised, in all decision-making processes to ensure their perspectives are heard and needs are met. This can be facilitated through the use of technology and digital platforms.

In order to strengthen education systems and reduce the impact of future pandemics and crises, DFID should:

  • Fund monitoring, evaluation and research into COVID-19 education responses, including collecting age-, gender- and disability-disaggregated data on the impact of school closures on children and their learning.
  • Facilitate learning from stakeholders to support systems strengthening, leading an intersectoral, inter-agency learning project on COVID-19 s response.
  • Establish a technical facility on non-conflict systems strengthening, using learning from refugee and COVID-19 programming to build more resilient systems in the face of pandemics or climate change induced crises.
  • Heavily invest in WASH facilities in schools which do not already have adequate provision in order to help prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks.
  • Support the UN Secretary General’s calls for a recovery strategy which keeps us on track toward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Written by the following members of the Send My Friend to School Coalition:

  • Oxfam
  • NEU
  • Plan International UK
  • Humanity and Inclusion
  • Leonard Cheshire
  • Sense International
  • Save the Children UK
  • Able Child Africa
  • Educational Institute of Scotland
  • The Steve Sinnott Foundation
  • VSO
  • Sightsavers

With additional partners:

  • Malala Fund
  • Girls Not Brides
  • ONE


[1] M. Antoninis, ‘The World is Off Track to Deliver on its Education Commitments by 2030’, UIS Data Blog, July 9 2019, Available at: https://sdg.uis.unesco.org/2019/07/09/the-world-is-off-track-to-deliver-on-its-education-commitments-by-2030/, (Accessed: 29 April 2020)

[2] United Nations (2020), Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Children

[3] https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-chief-warns-hunger-pandemic-covid-19-spreads-statement-un-security-council

[4] World Food Programme, ‘WFP gears up to support children left without meals due to COVID-19 school closures’, 20 March 2020, Available at: https://www.wfp.org/news/world-food-programme-gears-support-children-left-without-meals-due-covid-19-school-closures, (Accessed: 29 April 2020)

[5] UNESCO (2020), ‘COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response’, Available at: https://en.unesco.org/
, (Accessed: 29 April 2020)

[6] Malala Fund, ‘Malala Fund releases report on girls’ education and COVID-19’, April 6 2020, Available at: https://malala.org/newsroom/archive/malala-fund-releases-report-girls-education-covid-19 (Accessed 29 April 2020)

[7] Plan International (2015), Ebola: Beyond the Emergency

[8] Global Partnership for Education, GPE’s response to COVID-19: Rapidly mobilizing to face an unprecedented challenge, March 27 2020 (Accessed: 29th April 2020)

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/28/lockdowns-world-rise-domestic-violence

[10] UNDP, Assessing Sexual and Gender Based Violence during the Ebola Crisis in Sierra Leone, 2015

[11] WHO, COVID-19 and violence against women: what the health sector/system can do, 2020

[12] Education Commission (2016), The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world, Available at: https://report.educationcommission.org/wpcontent/
, (Accessed: 29 April 2020)

[13] UNICEF (2016), Towards Inclusive Education: The Impact of disability on school attendance in developing countries, Available at: https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/IWP3%20-%20Towards%20Inclusive%20Education.pdf (Accessed: 29 April 2020)

[14] Ibid

[15] WHO, ‘Climate Change and Human Health – risks and responses’, (N.D.) Available at: https://www.who.int/globalchange/summary/en/index5.html, (Accessed: 29 April 2020)

[16] Send My Friend to School (2020), The Right Climate to Learn: Education in a Changing Climate

[17] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/273923/DFID-Policy-standards-accessibility-disabled-people___.pdf