4. Quality education
Mind the Gap
Some of us were fortunate enough to have at least one excellent teacher throughout our academic path. Those teachers have not only shaped our minds, but they may have also changed and outlined our future choices, including our careers. Ultimately, the course of our lives. What we often forget, is that teachers are out there delivering life-changing opportunities for all, especially those whose life is hardest.
We know that pupil attainment is affected by a wide range of factors. We are talking about the quality of teaching, economic capacity, social and family context, gender, ethnicity, educational level of parents, geographic location, among many others: Just think about the 258 million children in several parts of the world that are unable to go to school . They say that talent has no borders, but none of us can choose where we are born.
I was lucky enough to be born in Portugal, where nowadays almost everyone can go to school. Furthermore, I was also part of the privileged percentage of people who had the good fortune to complete secondary school or higher education: 52% of my fellow countrymen did not have the same chance .
Somehow, I was always made believe that going to university was due to my own merit. However, looking back at my time at secondary school, I remember that one of my colleagues worked at McDonald’s in the afternoon and evening, whereas I had plenty of time to study after class. We both got a degree, but I will never live up to her merit.
The disadvantage gap is just too deep and simply too unfair. Poverty is punishing and constantly the root of the problem. Indeed, the connection between deprivation and school performance is widely studied and an undisputed fact.
Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds face barriers that result in decreased academic achievement. They have less incentive to study (instead of working to help their households), find it harder to access to study materials (such as books or tech resources), and benefit from less parental support. Hard life conditions impact the capacity to concentrate and less access to healthcare jeopardises the chances to thrive or even survive. Indeed, the correlation between premature death and poverty is well-known  and statistically relevant even in countries of medium and high income.
Also, economic austerity often shortens the number of meals available, with a devastating impact on children and young people. Alas, in a developed country like the UK 1.8 million children are at risk of hunger .
Simply put, this disparity between rich and poor is both cause and consequence of the attainment gap. It diminishes the creation of wealth, access to more qualified jobs, in short, creates a cycle of intergenerational poverty.
The creation of a level playing field involves investing in quantity and improving the quality of the best solution to fill the gap between rich and poor: education.
Invest in quantity so that the school system reaches everyone, and quality so that those who need it most have a better education. That is why we need more and better schools and more and better teachers to ensure that each student's educational experience is the best possible.
More than ever, this will prove to be essential for the advancement of the world and modern societies. The extraordinary events that we have experienced during this pandemic have finally brought to light how hard it is to educate our children. School closures left parents all over the world on the brink of despair. They now have to balance their own life problems with homeschooling. This struggle includes unequal access to on-line learning tools, childcare or housing constraints, to name a few. Some of those parents might have realised that, after all, managing groups of 30 children in the classroom is no easy task. Besides, teachers are most often the first and only to detect situations of abuse experienced by children, food shortages, mental health problems and many other dramatic support situations. Remarkably, they become front line workers for the children they have under their care.
It is also well known that normal school breaks, such as summer holidays, have a devastating impact on learning. And that is disproportionately exacerbated for the most disadvantaged students . Based on that experience, we know that long term general disruption for months to come will hit harder the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
The pandemic crisis we are experiencing has drawn the attention of millions of parents around the world to how absolutely important school teachers are. It is paramount for the economic recession that follows to be accompanied by the appreciation of teachers as the key to address the disadvantage gap: indeed, their impact in improving pupils’ performance is 2 to 3 times higher than any other school-level factor .
This is why it is so important to support our teachers. We need them to have the tools, training and professional development to effectively deliver their enormous task. We must be able to create the conditions to help teachers develop their skills, to equip and train them to make the best use of innovation & tech resources, accessing continuous learning, best-practice sharing, enhancing pedagogical methods, safeguarding of children, etc.
Somewhere around last year, I had a chat with a brilliant head teacher in south London where I heard her worries that students had become increasingly aggressive towards teachers, unwilling to learn and hard to handle due to misinformation “- the earth is flat, and teachers are paid by the government to lie to us” she told me. At that point, I was convinced that teachers would be facing a great challenge to adapt to the era of misinformation spread by social networks.
I was far from knowing that this was just something to add to a global pandemic and the following northern hemisphere-wide lockdown. Suddenly, we were all awarded an informal masters in change and crisis management for trying to cope with mayhem across our work, businesses and households. Teachers were no exception.
As schools closed, we were to realise the outstanding management skills of school leaders. They cared for the well being of children and staff, arranged schools to quickly close and adapt to remote learning. That included not only on-line teaching but also phone/mail resources for the less affluent or more isolated communities. They did this while keeping school doors open to protect children who are vulnerable or at risk, and their canteens open to feed those who simply can’t afford it.
This long and drastic interruption, combined with the expected unprecedented increase in poverty rates, will negatively impact future generations, further widening the gap between rich and poor. Governments, business, third sector and people in general - we must all work together to support and celebrate the outstanding work that teachers do. Allowing them to give every child the opportunity to succeed is an urgent and imminent need; failing to do this will keep inequality around for generations to come.
 UIS database
 Eurostat- Pordata, FFMS
 In the USA, for example, the difference between the average life expectancy between the richest 1% and the poorest 1% is 14 years (Chetty R, Stepner M, Abraham S,et al., 2001–2014)
 Pereira et al. Unicef, 2017
 Education Policy Institute, Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic
 Opper, Isaac M., 2019