Learning spaces in the time of Covid-19:
A reflection on IPASA’s Basic Education 2020 workshops
By Melissa King , The Field Institute
2020 has been a year of disruption and distress across the country. The detrimental effects of Covid-19 on the schooling system at all levels are especially worrying, given its already fragile state and the crucial role of education in society. A weakening of the system, lost teaching and learning time, and the psychological effects of interrupted schooling on learners, educators and parents are only a few of these impacts.
At the start of the pandemic, amidst lockdown measures and school closures, IPASA members and other funders expressed a willingness to use funding and other resources to support initiatives and projects that respond to the crisis in education. But how and where could their efforts be directed? What types of interventions would be most useful and effective, and how would they recognise and monitor such opportunities? With whom should they partner to implement such interventions? And, crucially, how were needs on the ground to be understood and prioritised?
It was in response to such questions that IPASA convened a number of ‘education colloquia ’, in the interests of providing a learning space for its members and others, and supporting targeted, useful and coordinated responses. Over the seven Covid-19 Basic Education Workshops held in 2020, IPASA addressed several expressed needs in the donor community. These included (i) understanding and receiving updates on government plans in relation to both ‘at home’ during lockdown or school closures, and ‘at school’ contexts; (ii) identifying areas in which government may need support; (iii) sharing information, exploring innovations and solutions to address emergency needs, and reflecting on lessons learned in their ongoing work with grantees during Covid-19; and (iv) providing opportunities for attendees to explore how to cooperate, coordinate or collaborate in their programmes. In addition, some funders had expressed a sense of being at a remove from the realities experienced by those working directly on the ground in the sector. The workshops gave funders an opportunity to hear from voices such as those of school principals and NPO implementers, thereby increasing their insights into priorities, needs, and the kinds of interventions perceived as useful by beneficiaries.
While IPASA received positive feedback on the workshops as a whole, the benefits of this aspect were especially stressed. Another unexpected outcome was the strengthening of relationships between those who attended the workshops regularly. The workshops were structured to include interactive and facilitated discussion in groups as well as presentations and information-sharing, and to address special interest areas. Several participants have noted that they have a much better understanding of ‘who is who’ within IPASA’s membership, and have followed up on conversations held at workshops. These emerging examples of collaboration are explored more fully in the article Collaboration during Covid-19: Making the whole greater than the sum of the parts in this newsletter.
Initially, IPASA developed a framework for focus areas in order to give structure and focus to the process. This Framework, summarised below, suggested areas of interest from which participants could select for group work discussions, while noting that interventions never fall neatly or exclusively into one category. Area 4 (Enabling Environment) was represented in the Framework as a separate category with 3 distinct subsets.
These conversations were clustered into education sub-sectors: Early Childhood Development, Basic Education and Higher Education. This article deals only with the Basic Education sub-sector workshops.
In the early workshops these areas of interest guided information updates on critical flashpoints of need in the sector, and shaped discussion of synergies between funded programmes. The focus then shifted to hearing ‘voices from the ground’: the challenges experienced in moving learning online were laid bare, particularly in relation to rural and disadvantaged schools. Covid-19 exposed deep fault lines in the digital divide, as well as other resource constraints. These inputs led to a recognition of the stresses faced by school communities in uncertain times – all those involved, principals, educators, learners, and parents, have to deal with emotional burdens brought on by uncertainties in terms of reopening and closing and what this might mean for institutional and personal educational outcomes. Recognition of the need for psychosocial support to be integrated into all interventions became a key cross-cutting theme in the workshops, and led to a dedicated session exploring theoretical issues and practical examples of this type of support. In the final two workshops the focus shifted to concerns about the longer term impacts of Covid-19, in terms of both the impact on funder practice and the impact on the school system and its prospects for 2021 and beyond. Funders and implementers shared ‘lessons learned’ as a means to inform future planning; there was a particular emphasis on the need for data and evidence to inform programme design for the future. School closures in 2020 have clearly led to learning losses, with the implication that existing backlogs (in particular in early grade reading, general language skills and maths) will be exacerbated, and carried over into the 2021 pipeline. This kind of data is vital to inform decision-making by funders.
IPASA members have recognised these workshops not only as valuable sources of information and mechanisms for networking, but also as forums for conceptual debate on the role of funders in times of crisis and its aftermath. Workshop facilitator Gail Campbell (Zenex Foundation and IPASA Board member) asked ‘What do we as donors have to offer?’ – and suggested this range: our own experiences with programmes and the knowledge gained from these; our networks, which include our associations, our NGO partners, and government contacts; and our resources: funds, time and people. IPASA will continue to reflect on how these workshops as learning spaces can help activate these offerings.