Before the pandemic, many Pacific Island countries grappled with low numbers of students completing secondary education.
Now experts in the region are concerned that the closure of schools to contain the spread of COVID-19, and the economic downturn, will lead to even more students dropping out of education early.
It’s an issue that has consequences for the region’s future development, given its large youth population. The Pacific Islands is home to about 11.9 million people, more than half aged below 23 years. And 90 percent of Pacific Islanders reside in the southwest Melanesian countries of Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands.
“Many factors affect education retention in the Pacific region, and COVID-19-related disruptions to education have added to the list. It is very possible that, in instances where families are responsible for some or all of the fees for secondary education, some students will not be able to continue their education for economic reasons,” Michelle Belisle, Director of the Educational Quality and Assessment Programme (EQAP) at the regional development organisation, Pacific Community, in Fiji told IPS.
“The teenage years are an important time in a young person’s life and, unfortunately, experience has shown that students who leave school before the end of secondary are not likely to return to education until later in their adult life, if at all,” she continued.
Many families, now on lower incomes or affected by unemployment since the COVID-19 virus emerged in early 2020, are struggling to afford the costs of transport, fees, and educational materials for their children to attend schools where they are open.
In the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific, a nation of about 721,000 people scattered across more than 900 islands, less than half of all children finish primary school. Josephine Teakeni, President of Vois Blong Mere, a civil society organisation in the capital, Honiara, told IPS that: “Some families have had to delay their children’s education while they find ways to get money to pay school fees…to send their children back to school in 2022. Some families have taken the risk of taking loans from formal and informal financial institutions to pay for school fees or support income-generating initiatives to pay school fees.”
For years, many Pacific Island countries had strived and successfully boosted universal education. But, while net primary enrolment is high across the region, the numbers of students starting school have not been matched by those completing it. In the Cook Islands, 100 percent of youths aged 10-14 years are enrolled in education, but this declines to 57 percent of those aged 15-19 years. Similarly, 93 percent of people aged 10-14 years are in school in the Solomon Islands, in contrast to 68 percent of the older age group.
Now, the closure of schools, as part of national lockdown restrictions, is exacerbating the loss of learning. UNICEF, which is working with Pacific Island governments to retain students in education, advocates that ‘with the COVID-19 pandemic now well into its second year, safely reopening schools has become an urgent priority. School attendance is critical for children’s education and lifetime prospects.’ It claims that extending school closures in the Asia Pacific region could result in losses of up to US$1.25 trillion in future productivity and lifetime earnings for the current generation.
As of 12 August, a total of 93,346 cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the Pacific Islands. The majority were located in Fiji, where there were 38,812 cases and PNG with 17,806.
In both nations, education institutions have shut for periods since the beginning of last year. In PNG, primary and secondary schools closed their doors from March to May 2020, and then again in March 2021, as virus cases rapidly rose. Restrictions were lifted in May, but the Pacific Community reports that many schools have chosen not to reopen because of ongoing fears about infection. Meanwhile, the lockdown in Fiji, which began on 20 April, is into its fourth month, and students are being encouraged to turn to online learning.
However, while about 50 percent of Fiji’s population has access to the internet, this drops to 11 percent in PNG. In the region’s most populous nation of about 9 million people, one-third of women and one-quarter of men aged six years and over never attended school prior to the pandemic. Many students, especially in rural areas, have faced significant barriers to participating in tuition being offered via radio, television, and the internet.
“There are lessons provided on TV and radio. Unfortunately, for most children, these lessons cannot be accessed due to radio stations in the provinces having poor signals and connections. Similarly, with TV. If electricity is not provided, lessons on TV are useless,” Dr Kilala Devette-Chee, Leader of the Universal Basic Education Research Program at PNG’s National Research Institute, told IPS. She added that high rates of illiteracy in rural communities also reduced the ability of many parents to support their children with home-based learning.
A rapid assessment by the PNG Government last year revealed that less than half of students in more than 72 percent of schools across the country had electricity at home. Only 22 percent of schools reported that most of their students had radios.
“The lack of accessible alternate learning pathways for students outside of formal secondary education completion [across the region] leaves school leavers in many areas with no options for continuing and completing their education,” Belisle said. The digital divide could increase inequality in education outcomes, with rural and remotely located students the most vulnerable.
As a development organisation with the capacity to draw from expertise across the region, the Pacific Community plays a vital role during this crisis. It’s providing governments and educational institutions with research, data, and insights into how the pandemic affects educational practices and outcomes, supporting informed decisions and response plans at the national level.
The organisation’s gathering and analysis of student learning data, literacy and numeracy assessments and the performance of students in relation to their curriculum “is a priority to understand how the COVID-19 disruption is impacting learners differently and to assess risk factors for different segments of the population,” Belisle explained.
“In a post-COVID-19 environment, understanding the challenges of adapting teaching and support of students around disruptions to classroom-based learning, and how to support students learning at home for extended periods, will be critical to maintaining equitable access to quality education for all students.”
The work of the Pacific Community’s EQAP programme, which receives major donor funding from Australia and New Zealand, also includes ensuring the quality and recognition of job-related skills training programmes, which lead to micro qualifications, in fields ranging from business management to the sports professions. These initiatives aim to upskill Pacific Islanders to adapt to the changing landscape of work opportunities and build their resilience in times of economic setbacks.