UNESCO Official: ‘Not going to school increases the risks of child abuse, sexual exploitation, child labour’

Vincent Defourny, new director of the Geneva Liaison Office (©Defourny)

One and a half billion children around the world have been unable to attend school since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,says Vincent Defourny, new director of the Geneva Liaison Office of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He details the strategies being put into place to help the most vulnerable schoolchildren, and the lessons that can be learned from this crisis for tomorrow's educational systems.

How many students are impacted by Covid-19 around the world?

More than 1.5 billion children in 186 countries cannot attend school or university because of Covid-19 confinement measures. That represents some 90% of the world's school children, who cannot go to school. Depending on the country and living conditions, alternative solutions are very difficult to identify. How to implement educational strategies to enable children to continue learning is our main challenge. This is even more true in the case of refugees or migrants. One of the ways to overcome the lack of schooling is the use of the internet and online resources.

Does it work?

About 60% of young people do not have access to the Internet. Alternative strategies must therefore be devised using more traditional means such as radio or television. UNESCO is trying to provide young people with access to as much educational material as possible free of charge.

You worked as a secondary school teacher in Uganda, what are the ways around for African pupils in this epidemic?

It is a challenge to create alternative, remote learning platforms because a very large number of children affected live in Africa. Mobile telephony, which is highly developed in African countries, is a good tool. It works very well, and in a more flexible and faster way than in Europe.

What are the indirect consequences of not going to school, a place of socialization where kids often get their only meal for the day?

Not going to school increases the risks of child abuse, sexual exploitation, child labour, poverty and malnutrition... All the arguments we have been developing for decades about the good reasons to go to school can be seen in this crisis. School is a very powerful tool for development, perhaps the most powerful. This is particularly true for girls, when they cannot go to school it impacts their access to nutrition, social networks and social advancement. There is a huge backlash when school systems are stopped. We see our partners, the ministries of education with whom we work, very distraught.

What are your particular concerns with refugees and migrants ?

Ensuring that refugees and migrants are able to integrate into the school systems of their host countries is a major challenge, even in normal times. In many countries, there are all kinds of barriers to the integration of refugee and migrant children into the school system. In Lebanon, for example, the school system had to absorb 25% more students [as a result of refugee influx from Syria]. This is a huge challenge in terms of infrastructure, class sizes, and availability of teachers. Ensuring access is a very long-term task that is carried out in consultation with local authorities and has major budgetary implications. With the COVID-19 crisis, the problems are exponential. The fragility of solutions is further exacerbated. But our strategy is, and remains, "Learning cannot stop", so we have to consider every possibility.

What strategies have you put in place to deal with the crisis?

Globally, together with a range of partners around the world, we have set up a free Open Educational Resources (OER) platform in different languages. The crisis has also highlighted the importance of UNESCO’s Education Passport, on which we have been working for ten years, which aims to make it easier to recognize the diplomas and qualifications of young people who living as migrants or refugees. The UNESCO General Conference adopted a resolution calling on Member States to recognize this passport. For instance, a young Iraqi woman who arrived in Norway has recently been authorized to work as a physiotherapist without going through a cumbersome procedure to have her diploma recognized. The passport is also currently being tested in Zambia.

What have we learnt from this crisis?

We're still learning, but all vulnerabilities are heightened. It is very important to build resilient education systems and organizations to cope with a crisis like this, as well as the ones that will most probably hit us in the coming years. The idea of reflecting on the future of education emerged in 2019 when this crisis was not yet on the horizon. On the one hand, an international commission of experts met to reflect, and on the other hand, we held bottom-up meetings for the general public. The crisis with its quasi-experimental situation provides a new way of thinking about education that will influence approaches worldwide. We are in the process of reinventing the future of education with strategies of e-learning, mobilizing people who are not traditionally in education systems. There was Learning to Be in the 1970s, there was Learning to Live Together in the 1990s, We should, in my opinion, move towards Learning to Learn. That's what the crisis is teaching us.

With the relaxation of confinement measures will we face other new challenges? What about the possibilities of post-traumatic risks?

This is indeed a very important dimension, which is being analysed by UNESCO. One of our policy papers talks about the importance of emotional intelligence in trauma (Education as healing: Addressing the trauma of displacement through social and emotional learning). It proposes to integrate learning strategies such as art, sports and other non-cognitive approaches, which are particularly important in traumatic situations. This includes children in COVID-19 confinement, who will soon be released as well as children who have had to leave their country because of war or drought; and children in other vulnerable and migrant populations. These extra-curricular activities are often not part of formal learning strategies. UNESCO proposes a more systemic approach.


Vincent Defourny has worked for UNESCO over the past 25 years. He served as the Representative of UNESCO in Brazil from 2006 to 2011, and most recently as Director of the Division of Public Information, from 2015 to 2019. Before joining UNESCO in 1997, he worked in Uganda as a secondary school teacher, then taught in higher education in Belgium and France.