The "Right to Education" at risk – Youth and adult education in Latin America in times of the coronavirus pandemic

Early on, governments in many South and Central American countries reacted to the new coronavirus with sometimes drastic measures. But when restrictions were eased, Latin America became a pandemic hotspot. A lesson from the Corona crisis is: Youth and adult education is more necessary than ever. But how is an "education of tomorrow" to be shaped?

Since March 2020, the world has been under siege from COVID-19. Early on, governments in many South and Central American countries reacted to the new virus with sometimes drastic measures. In many places there were nighttime curfews, schools and airports, restaurants and shops were closed, and traffic, locally as well as country-wide, was severely restricted. But by midyear restrictions were eased almost everywhere, and Latin America has since become a pandemic hotspot.

The impact of the virus on the Latin American education sector

Institutions for children, youth and adult education have kept their doors and gates closed in almost all countries since spring, relying on distance learning until further notice. But distance teaching does not reach everyone. While private schools, educational institutions or universities can certainly score with digital equipment and Internet access, the public education sector is increasingly sidelined. And with it, all those children, young people and adults who cannot afford private education. Wherever educational opportunities are accessible online only, this usually means no access to education (anymore) for the socially disadvantaged; and this is not only true for remote regions of the Andes or the Amazon basin, but also in urban centres such as Lima, Quito or Mexico City.

The quarantine measures have a high social and economic price. Millions of Latin Americans are forced to leave their homes to earn a living. And the proportion of the population living in poverty is rising rapidly. At the same time, informal work environments, cramped and precarious housing conditions, lack of information and health education, misinformation and poorly equipped – to desolate – public health systems are causing the virus to spread rapidly.

Corona brings deficits “to light”

All these problems are typical for the region and existed before the COVID-19 crisis. Corona, however, brings these deficits “to light” more clearly than ever before, and exacerbates them as well. It is already apparent for many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that progress made so far in areas such as poverty alleviation, gender equality and social justice will be set back decades by the pandemic. And the same applies to the “right to education”, especially in areas of youth and adult education as well as non-formal education and training.

Already chronically underfunded in “normal” times and of only secondary importance in national education systems, educational opportunities for socially disadvantaged youth and adults are the first to fall victim to cuts during crisis situations. And this is exactly what is currently happening in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala or Mexico. Local adult education centres, which are often the only way for many people in rural areas, small communities or urban peripheries to receive at least basic education, have ceased operations. And where they still function, teachers often work for months without pay and with materials that they distribute from “door to door”.

Classroom teaching is not possible, or even forbidden by decree, during a pandemic. But there is a lack of equipment, infrastructure and financial resources for the conversion to digital education, as well as a lack of professional skills among the teaching staff. In Corona times, state support is de facto concentrated exclusively on the formal education sector, i.e. schools. Non-formal education for young people and adults – since it is not a priority in education policy – is now completely left out. In concrete terms, this means that the “right to education” for millions of Latin American young people and adults is already neither possible nor guaranteed in the future.

Lessons learnt from the Corona crisis

This will have considerable consequences for the economic and social development of the region. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, a country like Ecuador with around 16 million inhabitants had around 5 million young people and adults without school-leaving qualifications. In neighbouring Peru, according to official figures, there were over 7 million who had not even completed primary school. And official figures often only represent a slice of reality. Since the end of 2020, the numbers of young school dropouts have been rising dramatically. Many children and young people who have already lost an entire school year will not return to it even after the schools reopen; they have grown older, have to support their families and earn money. Without a school-leaving certificate, a young person or an adult has hardly any chance for vocational training and better living conditions, not to mention personal further education.

A lesson from the Corona crisis is therefore: Youth and adult education is more necessary than ever. Need and demand are growing rapidly. But school-based education for adults, as it has been practised in Latin America so far, is not an alternative for the future. How is such an “education of tomorrow” to be shaped? What forms and concepts, actions and strategies are needed to guarantee lifelong learning for local populations? And what needs to be done to position them in national education policies?

Potentials for the future – the V Encuentro Andino

These were the questions addressed by around 2,000 participants at the V Encuentro Andino de Educación de Personas Jóvenes y Adultas, a digital event on Latin American youth and adult education, which took place from 8-10 December 2020. Organised by the DVV International Country Office Peru, the conference set clear accents for shaping sustainable education for youth and adults in post-pandemic times. The conference kicked off with a critical analysis of the current state of adult education in South and Central American countries, five years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. Reports and videos of practical examples showed how innovatively, knowledgeably, creatively and effectively adult education can already react to crisis situations on the ground in countries like Colombia, Ecuador or Peru.

Making this potential visible and usable in education policy is a central conclusion of the V Encuentro Andino. A concluding manifesto on “Adult Education of the Future” underlines the importance and potential of youth and adult education for overcoming crises as well as for sustainable development, and also formulates concrete tasks for the VII International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII) from a Latin American perspective.

For more information on the V Encuentro Andino and videos with numerous examples from practice, see: website of the conference as well as the Facebook page of the DVV International Peru and the website of DVV International Peru.

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