Fernando Reimers: “Giving priority attention to the most vulnerable students is essential if we are to provide opportunities for all”

Fernando Reimers: “Giving priority attention to the most vulnerable students is essential if we are to provide opportunities for all”

“Yes, continuing to teach children living in more vulnerable conditions is possible,” insists Professor Fernando Reimers, pictured here.


Venezuelan academic Fernando Reimers, director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard University, is conscious that this is a crucial time for the teaching community to ensure that children and young people in vulnerable situations do not drop out of the system. With the Covid-19 pandemic worsening and the opportunity gap widening, Professor Reimers is working on a number of international projects seeking to ensure education for all through leadership, innovation and teacher training. An early conclusion: there is still hope. He tells us why, in this interview for Equal Times.


In a recent webinar you said that, when the pandemic is over, members of the health and education community will ask their colleagues, “Where were you during the pandemic?” What did you do during that time? Allow me to put the same question to you now: what have you been doing during the pandemic?

Even before the pandemic was declared, it did not require much foresight to see the potentially devastating effects it could have on education systems, given the serious limitations it would place on the ability of schools to continue to operate in the way they are accustomed to. Equally clear was the fact that its economic impact would affect the ability of families to keep up their children’s schooling and the ability of states to fund the education system. In the early 1980s, education systems in the developing world were severely impacted by a serious economic crisis, and that impact was the subject of my doctoral thesis. I expect the pandemic to have a more profound impact because its economic impact will be greater.

This led me to ask myself what I could do to mitigate that educational impact on my own students and on the various educational institutions.

As for my own students, we turned our postgraduate studies in education at Harvard into fully online programmes. The result has been to open up the opportunity for students from outside the US to take part in our graduate programmes, and for us to have the most diverse and experienced cohort of students I’ve seen since I began teaching at Harvard. It is undoubtedly the largest educational experiment Harvard has conducted in many decades. As regards the Global Education Innovation Initiative, I redirected my efforts towards producing information that might help to support educational decision-making. Then we launched our Schooling Disrupted, Schooling Rethought: How the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education report, in partnership with the OECD.

This is a crucial time to prevent the education gap from widening and to stop too many children and young people being left behind. Based on your research on different educational experiences around the world, do you think governments are prepared for this historic moment? Or to be more specific, is there any country that has shown itself to be particularly adept in its management of education during the crisis?

The widening of educational opportunity gaps between children from different social backgrounds is undoubtedly one of the greatest risks of the pandemic. The gap is widening, all over the world, and its growth is partly the result of poor leadership. Some families with greater purchasing power are making their own arrangements in response to the shortcomings of both public and private schools, such as organising themselves into small groups and hiring a person (in many cases a trainee teacher, recent graduate or retired teacher) to tutor their children. These so-called learning pods are a good idea, but that good idea is not within every student’s reach. Such arrangements are therefore likely to increase the social inequalities in the educational opportunities that students have access to during the pandemic.

Ways must be found to provide more support to socially disadvantaged students so that their only option is not between attending school in conditions that put their health and that of their teachers at risk (when health conditions make face-to-face education high risk) or spend hours in front of a computer screen, listening to classes via Zoom, with teachers who have not been properly trained to provide quality education remotely. In some cases, the less privileged children do not have an adult at home in a position to support them with these tasks. This is a unique opportunity for the other institutions in society to show solidarity with those who need it most, an opportunity for universities around the world to involve their students in assisting teachers with the work they are doing to support the education of the most vulnerable children in primary and secondary schools.

For education to reach everyone, it is essential that in-class schooling be increased but, as we are seeing in a number of countries, like Spain, where the rate of Covid-19 infection is rising to high levels again, many families are afraid to send their children to school. Is it possible to ensure both universal access to education and the safety of families?

Ensuring educational opportunities for all under conditions that are adapted to the health situation in each region or local area is crucial. Giving priority attention to the most vulnerable students is essential to achieving opportunity for all. If the local health authorities establish that school attendance is contributing to the spread of the epidemic, and if infection rates are increasing to public risk levels, alternative ways need to be found to continue providing educational opportunities.

Education can be provided in many ways, and it is certainly possible to do so even more effectively with adequate teacher training and the provision of students with the connectivity and equipment required. The efforts to develop alternative emergency arrangements during the months of April, May and June clearly show that they cannot completely replace face-to-face instruction in terms of its full potential to develop cognitive and social-emotional skills. It also has to be acknowledged that this potential is diminished by the adoption of social distancing measures in schools.

What educational principles should never be lost sight of in the midst of urgent containment measures, remote education and a cautious return to school?

The number one principle is to ensure the students’ psychological and physical wellbeing. The pandemic is affecting the health and the incomes of many families, creating a great deal of understandable anxieties. Prolonged anxiety has a detrimental effect on people’s mental health. Education should contribute to the wellbeing of students and teachers. The second principle is the need to maintain the continuity of students’ learning, to create enabling conditions for them to learn and to do so with pleasure. There should also be much greater emphasis on students developing knowledge and skills rather than on ‘covering content’. A third principle is the need to lead educational systems that foster dialogue. In those places where I have seen the most interesting innovations, I have also found humble educational leadership that encourages collaboration. The pandemic creates the risk of more authoritarian forms of leadership as an understandable response to uncertainty.

In your book Empowering Students to Improve the World – and in your global curriculum – you argue in favour of complex lessons, discussing the cross-cutting issues of conflict – poverty, identity, nation, religion – to avoid infantilising students. But these issues are usually very close to one’s value system and there is often a fear of ideological debate in the classroom. How can this fear be overcome?

The purpose of the three global citizenship curricula I have developed is to effectively engage students in active and collaborative learning experiences that enable them to develop the skills needed to tackle important issues that concern them, such as poverty, inequality, climate change, etc. The curricula are in use in many schools in various countries around the world, and the books are translated into many languages.

I find there are, in fact, many educators who understand that empowering students to take charge of their own lives and equipping them with the skills to collaborate with others to improve the world is indeed the most important educational goal of our time. I think this pandemic has prompted many educators to reflect on these issues. What I am presenting in these curricula are opportunities for students to think, to debate, to develop their own ideas. The aim is not to indoctrinate students in one way of thinking or another.

Disinformation, fake news, denialism, extremist discourse: what role does education – or the lack of it – play in the proliferation of all these destabilising forces? Is educating for democracy more important than ever?

I honestly don’t know. When Germany’s Weimar Republic was replaced by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in 1933, the country had one of the most highly educated populations in Europe. When the Latin American dictatorships reached Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, these countries had the highest levels of education in the region. So the connection between education and democracy or authoritarianism is complex, and it certainly takes more than years of schooling to develop the skills and the will to effectively engage in democratic citizenship.

There is indeed an increase in intolerant movements around the world, often linked to a resurgence in nationalist populism, which are a challenge for pluralist democracies that respect the human rights of all people. Part of the ideology of this new populism is a mistrust of scientific expertise and institutions. Its attacks on educational institutions have been most clear-cut against universities, which it considers to be ‘elite’ institutions. It is not unusual for authoritarian governments to distrust institutions that cultivate critical thinking, and to attack universities, scientists and intellectuals. Hitler did it, Franco did it, Pinochet did it and many other autocrats have done it, ever since the first modern research university was established, in Berlin, in 1811.

School is synonymous with hope, and I would like to end with this question. Is there any project, undertaken in a country of the Global South, that has raised your interest during the pandemic?

Of the innovations I’ve been studying, I have found those that institutions or governments have come up with to keep teaching in areas where resources are hugely lacking very inspiring. The Alianza Educativa (Education Alliance) in Colombia, bringing together private universities and schools providing support for public schools attended by students from low-income families, has come up with ingenious ways of continuing to teach, remotely, during the pandemic, for example. In India, Reality Gives, a non-profit organisation that works with very vulnerable children living in the slums of Mumbai, has found a way to continue giving its English classes using mobile phones. In Brazil, the State Secretariat of Education in Maranhão has established a partnership with a non-governmental organisation to make use of technology to help mothers to provide quality early education. And as for government bodies that have demonstrated a capacity for innovation in educating vulnerable populations, the Municipal Secretariat of Education in Bogotá, Colombia, or the Secretariat of Education in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, come to mind.

These and other examples clearly show that it is possible, that in the extremely difficult conditions created by the pandemic, it is possible to continue educating children living in highly vulnerable conditions. It is a matter of being aware of what we can do with all the resources at our disposal, of asking ourselves the question that we addressed at the beginning, that is, in the midst of this serious crisis that all of humanity is experiencing: “What am I doing to alleviate the suffering caused by the pandemic?” I am sure that if we ask ourselves this question and we do all we can to answer it, within the bounds of our own capabilities, it may be that, at the end of the long night that this pandemic represents, we will wake up to a better, more inclusive, more sustainable and more just world.

This article has been translated from Spanish.