Widening Gaps

The Coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan and then rapidly became a global health crisis has disrupted schools and universities in unprecedented ways. Successive lockdowns across the planet have led to a cumulative deficit of about one year’s schooling and, according to some studies, this educational loss might have adverse effects on the economy for more than 60 years to come (Coughlin, 2020).

The pandemic has widened gaps between countries, systems and schools. This is essentially related to differences in infrastructure. Some countries have wide scale broadband access, well-developed online learning capacity and, therefore, have been able to adapt to the challenges of Covid relatively quickly. Others, on the other hand, do not, and have been living through Covid with patchy solutions such as using social media platforms or highly asynchronous, minimally scaffolded educational strategies. 

These gaps, related to access and infrastructure, exist within countries among different sectors of the population. In the United States, for example, the racial socioeconomic divide has become increasingly exacerbated because of educational gaps caused by Covid (Francis & Weller, 2020). In England, some argue that the educational gaps caused by Covid have caused a widening of almost 50% between rich and poor, affecting mainly BAME and disadvantaged students (Adams, 2020).

The Covid learning gap has widened between students already boosted by privileged learning conditions, who have been able to flip to online schooling seamlessly; and those from less advantaged backgrounds, already struggling to gain access to quality education. This has meant that those already predisposed to learning through technology have stripped further ahead, innovating with increasingly forward-looking expressions of online learning while those left behind have fallen and will continue to fall even further behind. 

There is another dimension to this widening gap: it has increased between students at ease with their academic programmes and those struggling to access the curriculum: students with special learning needs will not receive the type of scaffolding and support they need when online and in environments that have been heavily disrupted by Covid, they will fall even further behind.

This is called “the Matthew effect”, it is when the rich get richer by capitalising on their pre-existing wealth whereas the poor get poorer as they fall further and further into debt. In education, it means that consolidated knowledge and strong pre-existing access to knowledge can be capitalised upon and will create even greater dividends for the learner whereas gaps in learning will cause students to fall even further behind as the curriculum moves ahead and they become increasingly lost.

The fact that different institutions have dealt with Coronavirus in different ways has created further disparities. In the United States, in some states, private schools have continued teaching face to face whereas state schools have not. This has led parents to opt out of the state system, despite the cost factor (Dickler, 2020). If this trend continues, there will be an increased disparity between costlier private educational provision and state-run schools, learning to more division and ever-widening gaps.

It should be added that this is against a backdrop where the gap between the poorest and the richest worldwide has never been higher (Picketty, 2017), there is much heated debate in the UK about the future of private schools (Ryan, 2019) and the integrity of many elite US colleges has suffered due to the “Varsity Blues” corruption scandals that have exposed parents buying places for their children.

It is important to strive for an educational system that is inclusive and broad-based, as envisioned in UNSDG4. This is because societal renewal, public goods and a healthy economy all require high literacy rates and high quality education across as many sectors of the population as possible.

So what should governments, ministries, examination boards and schools be doing to lessen these widening gaps? There are a number of steps that can be considered: 

  • State-private mergers whereby elements of privilege and high quality are shared across systems
  • More impactful and wide scale scholarship programmes 
  • more varied and inclusive criteria for higher education admission, allowing students to short-circuit the “gilded path” and gain entry on the quality of their character and thirst for lifelong learning 
  • more developed high quality, certifying and free access online learning

The state system in Switzerland is an excellent example of how quality and access can be married successfully. In Switzerland there is an outstanding standard of high school education, a high quality professional stream that is not seen as inferior to the academic stream in any way (in fact, most students in the national system take up the professional stream) and some of the globally highest ranked and yet cheapest universities. As a result, Switzerland’s educational system has led to one of the least educationally divided societies in the world. 

About the Author

Conrad Hughes is campus and secondary school principal at the International School of Geneva’s La Grande Boissière where he teaches philosophy. Conrad, who holds two doctorates, is also a research assistant at the University of Geneva. He has published widely on education. 

Conrad recently published Education and Elitism, which discusses polemical debates around privilege, private schools, elitist universities, equal access to education and underlying notions of fairness. The overarching question that runs through the book is about the future of education worldwide: how can schools and universities tread the tightrope between access and quality?

Works Cited

Adams, R. (2020). Gap between rich and poor pupils in England ‘grows by 46% in a year’. The Guardian. 

Coughlin, S. (2020). Coronavirus: Lost school time ‘will hurt economy for 65 years’ – study. BBC. 

Dickler, J. (2020). Families jump to private schools as coronavirus drags on. CNBC. 

Francis, D.; & Weller, C.D. (2020). The Black-White Wealth Gap Will Widen Educational Disparities During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Centre for American Progress.

Picketty, F. (2017). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Trans. A Goldhammer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 

Ryan, F. (2019). There is no longer any justification for private schools in Britain. The Guardian. 

Whistle, W. (2020). The Varsity Blues College Admissions Scandal Continues. Forbes. 

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