Impacts of the pandemic and increasing social inequalities on learning and wellbeing must be monitored – the skills gap is the sum of multiple factors

Economic and demographic differences between the regions and well-being gaps have increased in recent years, impacting learners’ equal opportunities for learning at all levels of education. Evaluation results indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic and exceptional teaching arrangements have exacerbated the trend of increasing inequalities. The learning, skills and well-being gaps are interlinked. Developing education and training providers’ quality management is one way of promoting equality.

An evaluation focusing on the impacts of the exceptional conditions conducted by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) found that the Finnish education system has mainly managed well in the new situation. Its particular strengths include the solid competence and commitment of the teaching staff. However, the prolonged situation has put schools, teachers and principals under considerable strain, and differences between schools and pupils have arisen for a number of reasons. The previously identified challenges related to learning support and guidance have grown larger.

Evaluation results indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic and exceptional teaching arrangements have resulted in a learning gap and possibly also a skills gap. The learning gap refers to a situation in which the learning process is disrupted because delivering teaching has not been possible or participating in distance learning has been hampered by a lack of devices, motivation, capabilities for self-regulation or, for example, health reasons. The skills gap, on the other hand, refers to an individual’s lack of competence, skills or knowledge, which may be the result of the learning gap.

An assessment of learning outcomes in mathematics and English carried out by FINEEC in spring 2021 found that students’ level of knowledge and skills is lower than before in the final stage of basic education. The level of mathematics skills in grade 9 has declined continuously since 2000, and the level of skills in English appears to have dropped somewhat since 2013. There are major variations between the skills of individual pupils.

It is too early to assess the full extent and permanent impacts of the skills gap. The extent of the skills gap may also be influenced by gaps in children’s and young people’s well-being and security. The impact of the skills gap is reinforced by an underlying decline in the skills reserve which has continued for a while and which appears to be linked to socio-economic background, social exclusion and a lack of self-regulation capabilities related to studies, in particular. The differences in knowledge and skills between pupils and schools are linked to educational and economic disparities between families and areas.

Developing the quality of education and teaching requires cooperation

FINEEC has included in its evaluation reports extensive development recommendations aiming to reduce the negative impacts of the exceptional conditions. The pandemic and the prolonged trend for increasing social inequalities have combined impacts that need to be addressed quickly. Structures and practices that produce inequality in education should be identified and eliminated. Every learner should be offered access to high-quality instruction, regardless of where they live and what their socio-economic background is. The social, regional and demographic segregation of society poses challenges to the education system, both nationally and locally.

It should similarly be ensured that pupils and students achieve sufficient capabilities at all levels of education. Earlier stages of the education path lay the foundation for later studies. To ensure that transitions do not exacerbate the growing skills gaps and put off tackling a learner’s challenges, education and training providers should ensure that learners have sufficient capabilities for the next step on their education path. Sufficient instruction and support for improving their Finnish or Swedish proficiency should be ensured for learners at all levels of education. The majority of foreign-language speaking learners need support with learning Finnish and Swedish and advancing their language proficiency.

“In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing a new and crucial equality issue. We need operating models for individually recognising and correcting skills gaps resulting from the exceptional conditions as efficiently as possible, making sure that this gap will not cause lifelong disadvantage in later studies and working life”, says Jari Metsämuuronen, Counsellor of Evaluation at FINEEC.

By developing quality management in education and teaching, we can safeguard and promote the realisation of equal opportunities for learning in schools and educational institutions. In terms of successful quality work, participatory involvement of staff and pupils in the development efforts in schools is vital.

Teaching, education and guidance professionals’ well-being and adequate training should also be ensured throughout Finland. The structure, numbers and competence of staff should meet the needs of the activities. Working conditions and resources have a direct impact on not only the quality of and opportunities for pedagogical work but also the well-being, motivation and coping of the staff. The competence of teaching, guidance and education staff should be supported and developed systematically.

The effectiveness of measures for preventing educational inequality must be assessed

In December 2021, FINEEC also published a summary of recent reports that describes the state of equality in education and the obstacles to its realisation in the Finnish education system. The publication sums up information produced by FINEEC’s evaluations in recent years about differentiation of skills, equality of opportunities, accessibility and inclusion in education. This publication creates an overall understanding of how skills develop throughout an individual’s life. On the other hand, several factors have been identified in early childhood that affect later stages of the education path and career.

The preconditions for the realisation of educational equality include more effective measures taken both at the national level and by education providers. A number of national measures have been launched to halt the trend of increasing educational inequality. The Development Programme for Quality and Equality in Comprehensive School Education and Early Childhood Education and Care (the ‘Right to Learn’) referred to in the Government Programme aims to improve equality in education and to reduce and prevent socio-economic inequalities. Grants have also been allocated to balancing out the impacts of the exceptional conditions, guidance, support and development of digital environments. In the years to come, the effectiveness of these measures should be monitored systematically at both national and local levels. New practices and operating models which have been proven effective should be developed together and also shared across the levels of education.

National and systematic evaluation of education promotes educational policy discussion and decision-making based on research evidence. On 14 December 2021, FINEEC published a review titled The COVID-19-pandemic, skills gap and differentiation of skills. This publication is part of FINEEC’s new Policy Brief series, which aims to support discussion and decision-making on education policy and societal issues. The publication series focuses on current evaluation results and recommendations for developing education and training.