The numbers are staggering: by early April 2020, over 1.5 billion learners—more than 90 percent of the world’s student population across 188 countries—were affected by school, college, and university closures as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. Those figures are now slowly decreasing, but there is little doubt that we have witnessed, and continue to endure, the single largest disruption to the global education system in our history. Many believe that the crisis has presented us with a golden opportunity to “build back better”; however, at this early stage, it is still difficult to see past the losses and immediate triage.
It has to be acknowledged that even before the pandemic spread across the world, decimating economies and bringing social life to a standstill, the global community was not on track to deliver on its commitments to achieve inclusive, equitable and quality education for all as part of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda. In July 2019, six months before the first case of Covid-19 was reported, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report Team published the first-ever projections on progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4). Based on available data and trends, the UIS and GEM Team predicted that more than 220 million children, adolescents, and youth would still be out of school in 2030; four in ten young people would not finish secondary school; and 750 million adults would still be unable to read.
The report also showed that financially, one-quarter of all countries were spending less than the recommended four to six percent of GDP and 15 to 20 percent of public expenditure on education. Even in the high-income states of the Gulf, these targets are often not met. The most recent data for Qatar shows that in 2017, the country allocated 2.9 percent of its GDP and 8.9 percent of public expenditure, while in the same year, Bahrain reported 2.7 percent and 7.5 percent. (Oman is an exception with 6.7 percent and 16 percent.) Now facing what the UN is describing as a “historic recession with record levels of deprivation and unemployment, creating an unprecedented human crisis,” it remains to be seen whether underfunded education systems will receive the resources they need to address both the lack of progress towards SDG 4 and guarantee sustainable long-term recovery and systemic resilience, post-Covid.
With this context in mind, the key education challenges that have emerged for governments as a result of the pandemic and subsequent closures of schools, colleges, and universities are wide-ranging, and circumstances differ from country to country. A few, however, are common to all—including the Gulf. For example, despite the best efforts of teachers, parents, and caregivers around the world to ensure learning continues as normally as possible, for many students, their education has stalled. Learning losses have been inevitable. In many countries, the assessments and exams that would have enabled students to graduate have been postponed or canceled due to the specific challenges of distance learning, such as accurately measuring and validating learning outcomes, invigilating online exams, and quality assuring results. A particularly concerning situation faces upper secondary students hoping to attend college or university, who may now be unable to enroll before application deadlines. The knock-on effects will be felt keenly both by the higher education institutions themselves, as well as in the labor force supply further down the line.
While many public education systems and educational institutions have had years of experience using online platforms, none were wholly prepared to manage the total, and rapid shift away from classrooms and onto online platforms, television and radio; nor were teachers, who have been asked overnight to adapt their pedagogy and materials to suit a very different and challenging environment, often without adequate training and support; and nor were the parents and caregivers, who might otherwise be working or performing care duties, but who are now spending many hours supervising their children’s learning at home. Compounding these issues are concerns about the general health and well-being of each of these cohorts in what are highly stressful and uncertain circumstances.
Additionally, closures have vividly illustrated the unequal access to technology for learners around the world and the growing digital divide. Globally, 3.6 billion people remain offline, with most of the unconnected living in the least developed countries. Households with no or limited internet access and no or only one computer are struggling to ensure learning happens at home, especially if there is more than one school-aged child to accommodate. Children with learning difficulties or disabilities and their families confront additional barriers, although some ministries are working to ensure accessibility by using closed captions and sign language interpreters in video and television broadcasts of classes.
With some variation in approach, and to greater and lesser extents, the countries of the Gulf have responded well to the need to close schools and have made substantial efforts to ensure the continuity of learning through alternative means. In this region alone, over 10 million K-12 learners have been affected. Teething problems were unavoidable, but well-resourced public education sectors have helped mitigate some of the worst impacts. Initially, Qatar’s own Learning Management System (LMS) struggled to cope with the number of users logging on, but a partnership with Microsoft Teams was quickly brokered to handle a maximum capacity of 300,000 simultaneous users. At the outset of closures in Kuwait, the Ministry of Education strongly discouraged schools and parents from using online learning platforms until it had assessed the available options: by the end of March, a decision was made to allow all schools to begin online learning. In the UAE, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives group launched Madrasa, a free e-learning platform open to 50 million Arab students. Both Qatar and Oman launched dedicated television channels to broadcast classes, and YouTube has also been widely used by Gulf ministries of education to amplify reach and appeal.
Good examples also exist of governments working with internet service providers to facilitate e-learning, as is happening with Ooredoo and the Qatar Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE), through its Digital Transformation Partnership; while in Oman, Ooredoo has upgraded the internet subscriptions of educational institutions to help parents and students with homeschooling. (By comparison, in Yemen – a country which is already facing the prospect of a total collapse of its education system and whose teaching workforce has been decimated by the non-payment of wages and displacement – the government is struggling to ensure learners can and do engage with classes broadcasted on radio.)
Nevertheless, challenges unique to the Gulf—where migrants and expatriates often outnumber citizens, and parallel education systems exist—have also manifested. Many non-government ‘community schools’ are considerably less well-resourced than their public school equivalents, charge tuition fees, and do not receive the same level of government support. Community schools cater to the children of migrants of lower-income countries, usually South Asian and African; in general, they have largely been left to fend for themselves during closures with the majority of vulnerable households and students ineligible for government educational assistance. In Qatar, the department of private schools within the ministry has begun an initiative to support a number of disadvantaged private school students with the distribution of one computer for each household,  but there is little evidence of more widespread government assistance of this kind in the Gulf. Sub-regional data on out-of-school children and youth is also scarce, and there is every likelihood that the number of dropouts will increase significantly as a result of the lack of access to technology and subsequent cessation of learning during prolonged school closures. Additionally, despite comparatively high levels of ICT-literacy among teachers and educators, and the years’ long push towards realizing digital and knowledge economies, governments in the Gulf have identified widespread capacity gaps among national and expatriate teachers alike.
What does the future of education look like in the Gulf? As the depth of the economic shock becomes clear, we know that the sharp decrease in oil prices, combined with concurrent health and trade sector crises, will produce significant budget deficits. In April, Bahrain announced a 30 percent spending cut for ministries and government agencies to help bolster its response to the pandemic, following similar moves by Saudi Arabia and Oman. It is unclear whether and how ministries of education will be affected by such cuts, but what is apparent is that Gulf countries do have the capacity and resources to make the important systemic changes to their education systems that will be necessary for long-term recovery and systemic resilience.
When schools reopen, ministries of education will not only have to assess the feasibility of large-scale remedial and catch-up options to make up for lost learning time, they will also have to work closely with other government agencies to ensure appropriate health and hygiene standards are in place to reduce as far as possible the risk to staff and students. Ministries and stakeholders will have a chance to rethink the future of education and build resilience, through improved policies and planning, and by institutionalizing crisis risk reduction and management within the education sector. They must also ensure effective teacher preparation and support and reckon with their own capacity to reinforce and improve remote learning in a much more holistic, agile, and imaginative way than has so far been the case. We need to be thinking about making substantive, innovative changes that will pave the way to fully mainstreaming health education, environmental education, and global citizenship values into curricula and syllabi to ensure learners have the 21st-century skills they will need to navigate our complex new world. As difficult as it has been, the pandemic is an opportunity, and the Gulf States have the potential to achieve much more than just system ‘recovery’ as a result.
UNESCO is the UN agency mandated to lead the Education 2030 Agenda. At the global level, its Covid-19 response strategy has been focused on enhancing coordination, building public and private partnerships and mobilizing resources, providing technical assistance to member states, disseminating information and resources, and monitoring. The UNESCO Doha Office serves the six countries of the Arab Gulf and Yemen. For more information, please visit: https://en.unesco.org/covid19 and https://en.unesco.org/fieldoffice/doha.
Article by Caitlin Sparks, Education Program Assistant at UNESCO Doha Office.
- Read more about the COVID Project here.
 UNESCO, “School Closures Caused by Coronavirus (Covid-19),” 2020, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse. As of mid-May 2020, the number of countries enforcing closures has decreased to 161, with approximately 1.2 billion learners affected, or 69.4 percent of the total student population.
 See for example: Gulf Times, “Education Cannot Just Go Back to ‘Business as Usual after Covid-19,” April 21, 2020, https://m.gulf-times.com/story/661279/Education-cannot-just-go-back-to-b… Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, “An Inclusive Response to Covid-19: Education for Children with Disabilities,” Global Partnership for Education, May 11, 2020, www.globalpartnership.org/blog/inclusive-response-covid-19-education-chi… and Garcia Mathewson, Tara. “Coronavirus Opens Doors to Rethinking Education,” The Hechinger Report, April 22, 2020, https://hechingerreport.org/coronavirus-opens-doors-to-rethinking-education.
 Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform, “Goal 4,” 2020, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg4.
 UNESCO Institute of Statistics and Global Education Monitoring Report Team, “Meeting Commitments: Are Countries on Track to Achieve SDG 4?,” 2019, 3, 4, and 9, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000369009/PDF/369009eng.pdf.multi.
 UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, UNFPA, UNDP, UN Women, and UNHCR, “Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action: Towards Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Lifelong Learning for All,” 2015, 29, www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/ED/ED_new/pdf/FFA-ENG-27Oct15….
 Global Education Monitoring Report Team, Global Education Monitoring Report, 2019: Migration, Displacement and Education: Building Bridges, Not Walls (Paris, France: UNESCO, 2018), 283, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000265866. Note this data is not available in the 2019 GEMR for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
 United Nations (UN), “A New Normal: UN Lays Out Roadmap to Lift Economies and Save Jobs after COVID-19,” Press Release, April 27, 2020, www.un.org/africarenewal/news/coronavirus/new-normal-un-lays-out-roadmap….
 UNESCO, “Covid-19 Education Response Webinar: Managing High-Stakes Exams and Assessments during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” April 9, 2020, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373247.
 UNESCO, “Covid-19 Education Response Webinar: Supporting Teachers to Maintain Continuity of Learning during School Closures,” March 27, 2020, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373248.
 UNESCO, “Teacher Task Force Calls to Support 63 Million Teachers Touched by the Covid-19 Crisis,” March 27, 2020, https://en.unesco.org/news/teacher-task-force-calls-support-63-million-t… UNICEF, “Psychosocial Support for Children During Covid-19: A Manual for Parents and Caregivers.’ 2020, www.unicef.org/india/media/3401/file/PSS-COVID19-Manual-ChildLine.pdf.
 UNESCO, “Covid-19 Education Response Webinar: Ensuring Equity in Remote Learning Responses to School Closures,” Synthesis report, March 20, 2020, https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/covid-19-ed_webinar1-ensuring_….
 UN, “Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the Socio-Economic Impacts of Covid-19,” 2020, 10, https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/SG-Report-Socio-Economi….
 Qatar Tribune, “Ministry Ensures e-Learning for Students with Disabilities,” March 29, 2020, www.qatar-tribune.com/news-details/id/186144/ministry-ensures-e-learning….
 World Bank, “World Bank Education and Covid-19,” April 30, 2020, www.worldbank.org/en/data/interactive/2020/03/24/world-bank-education-an…. Total K-12 students per country: Bahrain 247,489; Kuwait 907,668; Oman 780,431; Qatar 309,856; Saudi Arabia 6,789,773; UAE 1,170,565. Including tertiary enrollments, the total number is over 12 million.
 Kuwait Times, “Kuwait Bans Online Learning Platforms during School Break,” 3 March 3, 2020, https://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/kuwait-bans-online-learning-platfor… see also The Times Kuwait, “Cabinet Approves e-Learning in Private Schools,” April 1, 2020, timeskuwait.com/news/cabinet-approves-e-learning-in-private-schools.
 See Madrasa, 2020, https://madrasa.org.
 Ooredoo, “Qatar – Ooredoo Offers Free Bandwidth Upgrade for Educational Customers,” March 16, 2020, https://menafn.com/1099864617/Qatar-Ooredoo-offers-free-bandwidth-upgrad….
 Ooredoo, “Ooredoo Group Supports Communities and Businesses in Challenging Covid-19 Situation,” April 7, 2020, www.ooredoo.com/en/media/news_view/ooredoo-group-supports-communities-an….
 OHCHR, “Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Ms Koumba Boly Barry, Following Her Official Visit to Qatar, 8-16 December 2019,” December 16, 2019, www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25427&LangID=E; see also Global Education Monitoring Report Team, Arab States – Migration, Displacement and Education: Building Bridges, Not Walls (Paris, France: UNESCO, 2019), vi, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000371320/PDF/371320eng.pdf.multi.
 Exceptions do exist. See, for example, What’s Going on Qatar, “Needy Private School Students to Get Free Computers,” April 8, 2020, www.wgoqatar.com/2020/04/needy-private-school-students-to-get-free-compu….
 Global Education Monitoring Report Team, Arab States – Migration, Displacement and Education, 292.
 Brookings Doha, “Webinar: The GCC’s Double Dilemma: Tackling Covid-19 and Falling Oil Prices,” April 14, 2020, www.brookings.edu/events/webinar-the-gccs-double-dilemma-tackling-covid-….
 Al Jazeera, “Bahrain Latest Gulf Country to Announce Drastic Spending Cuts,” April 20, 2020, www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/bahrain-latest-gulf-country-announce-drastic-….
 David Evans, Susannah Hares, Justin Sandefur, and Liesbet Steer, “How Much will Covid Cut Education Budgets?,” Center for Global Development, May 8, 2020, www.cgdev.org/blog/how-much-will-covid-cut-education-budgets.
 UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, and WFP, “Framework for Reopening Schools,” 2020, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373348.