- What does Literacy Day mean amidst a pandemic and an economic crisis?
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
There has been a lot of discourse on the impact of Covid-19 and then the economic crisis on children’s education in Sri Lanka, and this is a topic that is of even more significance on a day like International Literacy Day (ILD), which is commemorated annually on 8 September.
Unfortunately, Sri Lankan students are facing immense difficulties and a needs assessment by Save the Children in June showed that 50% of families were struggling to support their children’s education as a result of the crisis, with some children already dropping out of school.
“Children across Sri Lanka have had a terrible two years, with Covid-related school closures completely disrupting their ability to get a basic education. This economic crisis is making things worse. Not only are schools closing once again, but families have even fewer resources at their disposal to keep kids learning than they did before the pandemic,” Save the Children Director of Programmes in Sri Lanka Ranjan Weththasinghe said.
School closures, whether due to Covid-19 or the fuel crisis, disrupted education, taking it online. However, Sri Lanka’s computer literacy rate was 34.3% last year and our digital literacy rate was 57.2%, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. The annual bulletin on computer literacy statistics also found that only 22.9% of households owned a desktop or laptop computer.
Internet use did increase from 12.9% in 2019 to 39.7% in 2021 among the five-14 age group and 48.1% in 2019 to 74.3% in 2021 among the 15-19 age group. This could be interpreted as a result of online education.
Despite this, the Save the Children risk assessment found that 40.6% of households reported not having internet access at home, whether by computer or mobile. Children were thus unable to take part in online learning. Regular power cuts are undoubtedly adding to their challenges.
We will thus be celebrating ILD while our education sector is faced with several hurdles and children’s education is in a precarious state.
This year, ILD will look at transforming literacy learning spaces, giving stakeholders the opportunity to rethink the importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable, and inclusive education for all. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has also called on all actors in the field of education and beyond to re-think the role of literacy.
ILD has been celebrated since 1967, highlighting the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, as well as advancing the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.
In her ILD message, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said that much has been achieved. “In 1979, only 68% of the world’s population knew how to read and write. In 2020, this figure had risen to 86.7%,” she said. However, despite this progress, 771 million youth and adults around the world still do not possess basic literacy skills – 60% of whom are girls and women.
In June, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), now officially the United Nations Children’s Fund, released a statement on learning poverty, which is the inability to read and understand a simple text, stating that 70% of 10-year-old children in low- and middle-income countries fall into this category, as Covid-19 has worsened the global learning crisis and has risked $ 21 trillion in lifetime earnings.
The number of 10-year-olds in learning poverty has increased since the pandemic, UNICEF stated, highlighting that the potential loss of lifetime earnings was 17% of today’s global gross domestic product (GDP). According to the State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update, the largest increase was in Latin America and the Caribbean, while the second highest increase was in South Asia, where predictions state that 78% of children lack minimum literacy proficiency, up from 60% before the pandemic.
“Prolonged school closures and unequal mitigation strategies have worsened learning inequality among children. Evidence is mounting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups are suffering larger learning losses,” UNICEF stated.
Measures recommended for governments to help children recover lost learning include: Reaching every child and keeping them in school; assessing learning levels regularly; prioritising teaching the fundamentals; increasing the efficiency of instruction, including through catch-up learning; and developing psychosocial health and wellbeing.