Education: The antidote to inequality in Latin America post COVID-19

10 November 2020


A boy working on his lesson in Latin America

In Latin America, the COVID-19 crisis has deepened educational gaps in a region already considered one of the most unequal in the world. Across 21 countries, the richest 20 per cent of students are, on average, five times more likely to finish their secondary education than the poorest 20 percent.

“The pandemic caused an unprecedented interruption in education in our region and has left us on the brink of a generational catastrophe,” said Pablo Cevallos Estarellas, Director of the IIEP-UNESCO Office for Latin America, speaking at the fourth edition of the UNESCO Regional Forum on Education Policy in November 2020.

At the same time, Cevallos Estarellas said the crisis has driven innovation in the education sector, notably around new technological solutions for distance education. “However, the difference in access to the teaching models offered during school closings will create more inequalities in the long run,” he said.  The paradox of this advancement is therefore a bold warning to remain committed to education goals and the imperative to leave no one behind.  “We need to educate more and better in our region,” concluded Cevallos Estarellas. “Because education is an excellent antidote to inequality.”

Bringing together some 350 key figures in education from across Latin America, the Regional Forum consisted of four days of reflection and debate on inclusion in education. More than 40 recommendations emerged, including:

Bridging the digital divide is an urgent need

Reducing the digital divide must be a priority. Renato Opertti, from the International Bureau of Education (IBE), underlined this especially as “schools will probably reopen with restrictions and in both face-to-face and remote learning formats.” A hybrid-learning model – one that combines virtual and in-person learning – would therefore require digital skills development for both teachers and students.

Inclusive education is intercultural education

It will be important for decision-makers to promote ethno-educational approaches, which deepen the acknowledgement of the cultural singularities of people from Latin American and the Caribbean, such as their Afro-American and Amerindian descent. An example of this is the importance of establishing and creating policies and strategies for intercultural bilingual education, which offer all students the opportunity to learn in their native language.

“Achieving inclusion and equity continues to be an unfinished task in our region—an issue that has become more profound and evident in this context, and to which we must assign a renewed urgency.”
Claudia Uribe, Director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean

An intersectoral approach and widespread civic engagement

“Ministers and governments are fleeting, but citizenship, in all its different layers, is what can make a policy enforceable. It is what will support and demand it,” said former Ecuadorian Minister of Education Gloria Vidal during the event. She believes that building public policy that counteracts the forms of discrimination present in education systems requires a universal, intersectoral and comprehensive approach – as well as a major debate among all the actors in the education community.

Richness lies in diversity

Transcending segregation in education systems can happen only by incorporating diversity in all its forms, as well as celebrating it as an opportunity to build better societies. The Forum’s participants recommended taking a holistic approach to education and discussed the importance of diversity in non-formal education, civil society, families, and the overall voice of students themselves. This approach would also see education linked to health and social development, and decision-makers can learn from the accumulated experiences from across the region.

Resilient education systems to overcome crises

Lastly, the participants discussed the importance of moving towards more resilient, flexible, and inclusive education systems, which have the capacity to respond to the diverse needs, abilities, and characteristics of the entire student body. This is especially important as more varied and frequent crises affect the region. As Manos Antoninis, Director of the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM), pointed out, “In a world increasingly faced with uncertainty and precariousness, inclusion must be a central component of the future of education.”

Learn more about the IV Regional Forum on Education Policy

IIEP-UNESCO’s Office for Latin America has organized the Regional Forum annually since 2017. It is part of UNESCO’s support to strengthen the capacity of Member States in the region to face the challenges surrounding the goals and commitments of SDG 4 and the Education 2030 Agenda. Jointly organized by a number of UNESCO entities, this year’s event took place from 9 to 12 November with the theme ‘Inclusion and Education in Post-Pandemic Times.’