“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” Words by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai
could not be over emphasised. Making sure girls and boys all over the world as well as here in Namibia get access to a
good quality education is how we will build a better, more sustainable, more equal and more peaceful world.

Malala’s statement reflects our belief that education is a lynchpin for societies to develop. The immense progress made
with our partners such as the European Union (EU) all over the world and in Namibia, over the past 20 years or so,
shows how education can provide a pathway out of poverty and crisis, towards prosperity and good governance,
women’s empowerment, resilience to climate change and better health and nutrition outcomes.


The negative impact of COVID-19
Education is a top priority in COVID-19 recovery processes. It has been hardly hit by the current crisis. Global school
closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unprecedented disruption to children’s education, with
more than a billion students affected in some way. Early learning and vital early stimulation were also lost due to closure
of Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres, which focus on building a strong foundation for literacy, numeracy and
lifelong learning. For Namibia, a government report indicates that about 804,0791 primary to secondary school learners
(about one third of the total population) were not in school when the country went into lockdown in March 2020.


Still, new challenges for those returning to school

Today, around six in ten schoolchildren worldwide have yet to return to the classroom. In Namibia, schools reopened
from June to August 2020 with anecdotal reports indicating that some children (especially from poor and vulnerable
households) did not return to school.

We know from previous crises that when education is interrupted, the poorest and most vulnerable children may never
return to school, leaving them exposed to terrible risks. These may include forced child labour, trafficked, married off
earlier or sexually exploited. With essential health, nutrition, immunisation and child protection services interrupted,
they are more exposed to undernutrition, disease, mental health issues and abuse – and girls are at increased risk of
early marriage and pregnancy. Further, children who miss out on ECD services are unable to develop a strong foundation
for learning and to fulfil their full potential, falling behind before even reaching formal education.


Those who returned to school were presented with new challenges – having to catch up with lost time, masks, social
distancing, lack of access to handwashing facilities and their parents’ fears of another outbreak.

The lockdown resulted in children losing out on school days – an average of 76 schooling days in the primary phases
and 67 school days in the secondary phases were lost due to the lockdown.


The digital divide


COVID-19 has also reaffirmed the need to bridge the gaps in Internet access – increasing the digital divide — the uneven
distribution in the access to and use of digital technologies whether based on age, geographical or geopolitical factors,
social factors, or economic factors. The impact is seen at both macro levels, such as school systems struggling to ensure
all students have equitable digital access and opportunities for virtual schooling and on the micro levels where
grandchildren are teaching their grandparents how to use Zoom and Facetime to stay in touch during quarantine.

As the reality of this digital divide deepens, most children will have missed out on the chance to learn from home during
the lock down period. They will have fallen behind as a result, making the prospect of going back to school more
daunting for them – and for their teachers, too. In addition, those learners with visual, hearing and learning disabilities
would have missed out due to the lack of support from their parents to address their specific learning needs. In many
ways, children with disabilities are the unluckiest ones.


Ways forward – Alternatives to improve equitable access and quality in the current situation.


In these most difficult of circumstances, can we still win the battle to educate our children? The answer to that is a
resounding “yes”. But for this, we will need to work even harder and better to get the results we want.


The basis – reinforced Partnerships


The challenge is significant and multidimensional; it will not be achieved without a strong and diverse partnership, joint
planning and concerted initiatives. These partnerships should be taking place at all levels i.e.


• Partnership with international development Agencies
Working with the EU and other international development partners including the UN sister Agencies, has shown that
together we can make a lasting difference to education outcomes and ultimately getting the desired results
• Partnership with the Namibian Government (Political Dialogue & Advocacy)
Together, the Government of Namibia, the EU Delegation and the UNICEF Country Office continue to demonstrate a
strong partnerships and collaboration for early childhood development and education, to ensure access to inclusive
quality services to benefit the Namibia child. The EU Delegation acted quickly to advocate for and mobilise and
dispatch financial support focusing on Early Childhood Development and Pre-primary Education.
• Partnership with Civil Society and the private sector
Sustained partnership with Civil Society Organizations, NGOs, the private sector and communities providing formal
and informal services in the domain of education will enhance ownership. It will also enable the free flow of
information and messages to rural and remote communities;
• Partnership with the media – as influencers and persuaders will enhance our advocacy and support through the
dissemination of evidence-based information and assist in the promotion of equitable access to technology.


The digital opportunity


It is important not only to pursue digital inclusion and equity, but also to take advantage of the technology and make it
an opportunity for all.


Recently, we have seen impressive change, with many governments providing education online, on television, on the
radio and via mobile phone. Somalia, offline recorded lessons are being uploaded onto solar-powered tablets and made
available to children. Here in Namibia, we witnessed learners from far remote, vulnerable and marginalised
communities having access to continued learning through the development, printing and dissemination of 3,468,000
booklets for pre-primary to Grade 7 learners and printing of Braille learning materials for learners with visual
impairments. In addition, to sharing information via radio, teachers created WhatsApp messages with parents and
secondary school learner to ensure communication and information sharing continues daily. A public private
partnership with private television station, provided Namibian children and adults with free access to educational
material and extra lessons through “LearnOnOne TV programme”.

There are other promising experiences and tools embracing technology that would be worth pursuing and nurturing to
remove the barriers of access to technology. This is the moment to take advantage of digitalization and reimagine our
education system. Digital literacy and digital access will also benefit older adults, persons with disabilities, underprivileged groups and ensure that parents stay connected and have access to information received by their
children to perform even their civil duties.


The financing of Education

Education budgets must be protected from cuts as the global economic crisis bites. On the contrary, Education must be
seen as part of the COVID-19 recovery plan: rather than diverting finances away, more investment is actually needed in
our education system to provide the population with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to be actors of the
recovery and not victims. Spending must also be better controlled and monitored; and match outcomes. Building back
better applies as much to education as to anything else.


Conclusion


The scale of the problems brought forth by the pandemic requires a global, coordinated response; the EU and UNICEF
intend to be at the forefront of that response and be joined by other development partners including the Private Sector.
We continue to be committed to work with the Namibian Government and the education community to jointly develop
a national action plan, to pave the way for equitable and quality education for all.


We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to emerge from this once-in-a-generation crisis doing things differently,
addressing inequalities through more sustainable social systems.


Embarking on this huge undertaking means moving away from business as usual. If we learn the right lessons now, we
can truly build back better – for all Children in Namibia and their children.

Joint Op-Ed UNICEF and EU Delegation Namibia