What can we learn from an empty classroom?
Thirty years ago, Belgian schools shut for several months. As pupils face a similar situation in lockdown, how did the closures affect the prospects of young people?
By Michele Belot, Professor of Economics
Published 26 May 2020
The coronavirus crisis has changed our societies in ways we could not have imagined. One of the most dramatic measures implemented by governments across the world has been to close schools.
Children have now been stranded at home for weeks or months, and face the prospect of staying at home for a long period. Some countries have now started reopening their schools, but very partially, for few students and few days a week.
Closing schools for so long and preventing them for interacting socially with other children raises all sorts of questions. Focusing on the learning experience alone, how much long term damage should we expect from school closures?
There are few events in the past we can draw lessons from. But there is one event that shares interesting similarities with the current crisis: the school strikes conducted in 1990 in Belgium.
Schools in the French speaking region of Belgium were effectively closed from May till November 1990. The strikes followed a legal reform of the state of Belgium, whereby the education department was transferred from the national level to a more regional level - the level of the “communities” (French, Flemish and German).
The French community had budgetary issues, which raised gloomy prospects over the future of education in the community. After months of strikes, teachers accepted a deal in November, with a modest salary increase of 2 per cent.
Like in the current crisis, there was great uncertainty about how long the strikes would last, and children had to stay at home for a very long period of time.
In a paper published in the academic journal Labour in 2010, we studied the effects of these strikes on long term educational achievements of French speaking students.
We compared their achievements to older cohorts, who were not affected by the strikes; and we compared the differences across these younger and older cohorts to similar groups of students in non-French speaking parts of Belgium.
Using several data sources, we were able to assess the educational attainment of pupils 10 years after the strikes.
We found that the cohort affected by the strikes was more likely to have repeated a class, and overall their educational achievements was significantly lower. The diploma they eventually got corresponds to 0.7 years of education less on average.
In more aggregate statistics, we found that the year immediately after the strikes coincided with a higher likelihood of failing the first year at university, and more pupils switched to higher professional education. Our results suggest that the disruption had important long lasting consequences.
Then and now
Of course, there are notable differences between the current situation and the situation then. There was no internet. No remote teaching taking place. Now, there is internet, remote teaching is taking place in most countries, and there is large amount of educational resources available on-line for parents.
However, teachers will quickly acknowledge that this technology is not a perfect substitute. One does not get the same interaction or feedback through virtual teaching than in the classroom. Some pupils appear hard to reach. They cannot learn from each other as well as they normally do.
Of course in the current health crisis the difficult challenge is to weigh the benefits - those related to preventing deaths – with these costs. But there is a chance that our current situation will last a long time. It is important to ensure that the negative effects of the reduced schooling are mitigated as much as possible.
Some children may be more affected than others, as the access to technology or a parent’s time may be more limited. In times where one may need to choose between which children should go back to school, it is more important than ever to get the priorities right.
Public authorities could also put in place schemes that ensure that all children have a good access to technology. Schools could encourage small learning groups, where pupils could work together on problem sets, without necessarily having a teacher.
The current situation asks for creative solutions, and teachers have limited time themselves. But in contrast to 30 years ago, we do now have access to technologies that can hopefully help mitigate costs.
About the author
Michele Belot is a Professor of Economics at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently seconded at the European University Institute.
Images: all via Getty Images