Listening to Young Lives at Work Covid-19 Phone Survey: First Call shows widening inequality

With the virtual fieldwork just completed on our second Covid-19 phone survey, we reflect on seven key findings from the first call that point to widening inequality. 

Young Lives at Work adapted to the coronavirus situation to implement a Covid-19 phone survey about the pandemic's short and medium term impacts. You can read more about Young Lives' response to the pandemic here and here. In June, we wrote about the design of the first call and what we were hoping to find out.  After virtual training in four countries, seven weeks of on-line fieldwork, almost 40,000 phone calls, data cleaning, coding, merging, and preliminary analysis, the headline reports of our first Covid-19 Phone survey were released in August and the data are available here.  In this blog we share our approach to the first call and key findings. 

We interviewed a total of 9,541 individuals in the Older and Younger Cohorts, reaching almost 91% of those who we were aiming to reach (see our attrition report here).  We discovered seven common findings, as well as key differences between the four countries, Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam (below). The crisis is impacting the poorest most severely and widening inequalities, with poorer people less able to protect themselves, get information, work from home or stay in education.

Seven Findings from the Young Lives at Work Covid-19 Phone Survey


1. Poverty and a lack of information has impacted people’s ability to take precautionary measures against Covid-19 infection, especially in Ethiopia.

2. The economic effects of lockdown policies have been more significant than the health impacts to date - although many households in Peru and India are likely to have been exposed to Covid-19.

3. Across all countries, except Vietnam, many young people are going hungry. Although government support is well targeted, it is not sufficient in Peru and Ethiopia.

4. Remote working has been the exception, not the rule. Job losses or suspension without pay are widespread, even in Vietnam, the least affected country.

5. Education of 19-year-olds, in all countries, has been severely disrupted while access to online learning has been highly unequal.

6. Caring responsibilities increased for 25-year-olds with the burden still tending to fall on young women most of all.

7. Levels of anxiety about the current situation are high, especially in India​.

Poverty and a lack of information impact people’s ability to take precautionary measures against Covid-19 infection

According to the WHO, the most common symptoms associated with COVID-19 are a dry cough, fever, and tiredness. Public information in each country has emphasized a list of symptoms which overlap with this but there are some differences (e.g. in Peru difficulty breathing is highlighted on the official government website). Most respondents were able to identify at least two of the symptoms, and those with internet access were most likely to be informed. 

We asked respondents about the five behaviours which are widely recommended as a means of preventing infection: social distancing, washing hands more frequently, avoiding handshakes or physical greetings, avoiding groups and wearing protective gear when outside. Only slightly more than half (56%) of the Ethiopia sample adhered to all five, rising to 69% in Vietnam, 72% in India and 84% in Peru. Those with internet access or residing in urban areas showed a higher degree of compliance with these measures, and overall, females tended to comply more than males. In Peru, social distancing is the behavior with the least adherence, especially among vulnerable households.

We also assessed the resources available in households to comply with the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommendations on self-isolation, through an adapted version of the Home Environment for Protection Index (HEP) developed by Brown et al., 2020. The HEP measures the ability to receive reliable information on virus protection and the presence of available space and facilities suitable for implementing social distancing within the household.  

Young Lives Households: Home Environment for Protection


Information/ communication device

2 or less people per room

Household toilet

Household piped water

HEP score all indices

























Notes: Proportion of households. Adapted from Brown et al, 2020. Detail on the Young Lives HEP index can be found here.

Peru and Vietnam have relatively high averages for the protective index, but in Ethiopia, under a third have access to a piped water source, and the number of people sharing a room also makes it difficult to implement self-isolation when someone is believed to be infected with Covid-19. We find that young people who are the most vulnerable, are living in households with lower protection. Households in the higher HEP group (who are wealthier, on average) are also more likely to follow all behaviours, relative to those in the lower HEP group. 

A cause for concern is the number of those employing ineffective (though benign) preventative measures. A large number reported eating garlic or ginger to protect themselves against the virus, as well as drinking lemon, or adding hot pepper to food to prevent infection.

So far, the health impact of the crisis has been higher in Peru and India than in Ethiopia and Vietnam. In both Peru and India, approximately 6% believed someone in their household had been infected. In contrast, this figure was fewer than 1% in Ethiopia, and almost zero in Vietnam. Whilst our sample are not representative of the national populations, the rates do reflect the situation in each country. Of those who were believed to be infected in Peru and India, only around one-in-three were tested for the virus in both countries.

Many young people are going hungry in all countries except Vietnam: although government support is well targeted it is not sufficient in Peru and Ethiopia. 

The crisis has impacted food security in Vietnam notably less than in the other countries. One in six Young Lives households in Peru, India, and Ethiopia reported running out of food at some point since the beginning of the crisis. This percentage was even larger among households that faced food shortages (food insecurity) in our last visit in 2016 (about twice as high in India). In Vietnam, the overall proportion was much lower, at 4%.

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Source: Young Lives COVID-19 phone survey. We defined food insecure households as those reporting “sometimes do not eat enough” or “frequently do not eat enough” and food secure households those reporting “eating enough but not always what they would like” or “eat enough of what we want”.

Government assistance has reached our respondents to very different degrees. About 92% of the households in India received at least one form of support from the government during the lockdown, although in many cases the support consists of a small basket of food or face masks.  This compares to around half of those in Peru, falling to just 6% in Ethiopia. In all countries it was relatively well targeted, reaching proportionately more of those households that reported food insecurity in a previous visit. However, in Peru the proportion of the most vulnerable households that received a direct cash transfer was far from universal. This could signal either a targeting problem, a delay in payments, or both. Moreover, the size of the transfer appears insufficient (as its value corresponds to about 82% of a minimum wage per family for the entire period).  

Job losses or suspension without pay are widespread even in Vietnam, the least affected country, and remote working is the exception rather than the rule

Many of our 25-year-old respondents lost their jobs. This was particularly severe for respondents who had been informal workers with no written contract in our last visit. In Peru and India, 7 out of 10 respondents had reduced or lost their source of income due to lockdown, 6 in 10 in Vietnam, and 4 in 10 in Ethiopia.  A concentration of income losses among those in the informal sector is an indication of this group’s additional vulnerability to the economic consequences associated with the pandemic. However, it is important to state that everyone, even those who were formal workers prior to the crisis, was severely affected.

The proportion of those who lost income or employment was also relatively higher in urban areas compared to rural areas and a higher proportion of males experienced these losses in both locations. 

Remote working has been possible only for a lucky minority of 25-year-old workers living in urban areas. The highest proportion (28%) in India were able to work from home during the outbreak, falling to 20% in Vietnam, 18% in Ethiopia and 17% in Peru. The percentage is much higher within households who are better equipped for protective measures against Coronavirus (High-HEP). Presumably, this is due to the availability of better infrastructure (e.g. access to internet, computer ownership) and the nature of the work activities performed. 

Education of 19-year olds in all countries has been severely disrupted and access to online learning has been highly unequal

With schools and universities closed very early on in the outbreak in all countries, the interruption to education was striking. Inequalities in those whose studies were interrupted are clear both across countries, gender and wealth. Access to study from home was slightly higher for females than males in all countries, and wealth and parental education almost doubled the chances of being able to study at home. In Vietnam, the vast majority of our 19-year-old cohort (almost 90%) accessed remote learning, falling to 70% in Peru, and 38% in India. In contrast, only 28% in Ethiopia continued to learn remotely, this fell to 14% if their parents had no education. 

This echoes the findings of another Young Lives study that interviewed headteachers in Ethiopia and India, see here for more information

Caring responsibilities increased for 25-year olds and the burden still tends to fall on young women

Although slightly more 19 year-old women have been able to continue their studies online, wide disparities are clear when looking at caring. In all countries except Peru, more than double the number of young women, relative to young men, have had to take on extra caring responsibilities during the lockdown.  The disparity is particularly striking in India and Ethiopia.

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Source: Young Lives COVID-19 phone survey.

Levels of anxiety about the current situation are high, especially in India

How is this impacting on young people’s stress levels? We asked respondents whether the statement "I am nervous when I think about current circumstances" applies to them. We found that stress levels are worryingly high – in India more than 90% of all the young people indicated it applied or strongly applied to them. In Vietnam and Ethiopia 65% agreed with these statements. Peru had surprisingly the lowest anxiety levels, with just under 50% feeling nervous. In the second call we have asked more detailed questions about mental health based on validated scales.

What happens next? 

The data are available on open access (see here).  Due to the nature of the confidentiality agreement that Young Lives has with the families, the datasets are anonymized, and information on geographical location is limited. 

The second call fieldwork has now been completed. We will release headline findings in November. This second phone call has gone into more depth about young people’s labour market experiences, to understanding the medium-term impacts of the pandemic on their work life, their home life, and their education. More specifically, it contains information on the household socio-economic status, food security, labour, education, time use, health (including mental health) - the main themes of the YL survey that can be implemented over the phone.

This is a longer version of our blog first published in The Conversation in August, here.  Follow us on Twitter @yloxford for news on Young LIves at Work. 


What can the private sector offer Indian education?

 (An edited version of this blog was first published on Ideas 4 India on 28 October 2015)

Few things in education policy in developing countries are more contentious than what the role of the private sector should be. Much of the dispute comes from contrasting opinions about the nature of private schools as they exist today: should we think of them as offering a substantial route for actually delivering quality education for many millions of children, especially in the face of severely underperforming government schools? Or should we think of them as essentially thriving on '€˜cream-skimming'€™ students from more privileged backgrounds, deepening social and economic divides but adding little in terms of actual skills and education. These are empirical questions. Here, I present some evidence, both from my own research and others'€™, that speaks to these issues directly in the Indian context. More importantly, I discuss the avenues which current research hasn’t focused on but which are critical for understanding how the private sector may best be leveraged in India.

Do private schools really produce more learning?

It is undisputed that private school students perform better on a range of tests than government school students. It is also undisputed that probably a substantial portion of this difference is accounted for not by the schools but by the type of households these children come from and their greater socio-economic advantage – in short, if the private schools had to teach the students currently in government schools, they might not be able to do better either!

This has been the key question on which quantitative research on private schools has focused on in India – and it seemed that, to the extent possible in data on students at one point of time, similar children in private schools scored better than their peers in government schools even accounting for those of the background characteristics that were observed in the data. And yet consensus was difficult -€“ who could say whether the data observed everything that differed between private and government school students?

This impasse changed this year with two studies which significantly advance the robustness of our knowledge in this area. In a paper published in the Journal of Development Economics this year, ungated version here, I used panel data on two cohorts of children in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to study whether the amount children learnt in private schools (in technical terms, the “value-added” of private schools) differed from that in government schools. The basic idea is simple: to the extent that unobserved factors are already reflected not only in a child’s test scores now but also his test scores from earlier years, we can get much more robust answers to this question by studying the amount children learn over time in government vs. private schools rather than what they know at any one point – these models, called '€œvalue-added models'€, have been shown to replicate the same results as experiments and quasi-experiments in several recent projects [click each link!].

In a nutshell, I found that in the core academic subjects -€“ Mathematics and Telugu -€“ private school students in primary grades were not learning any more than government school students. But they were learning a lot more English -€“ and that is why parents said they were sending children to private schools in the first place. In Telugu medium-schools, these extra English skills were gained without any loss in core math or Telugu skills. At secondary school ages, there'€™s somewhat more evidence of greater learning in math and Telugu -€“ but the gains are modest, and certainly a fair distance from where any absolute expectation of what we expect children to know at the end of secondary schooling. I also don'€™t find any evidence that private schools increase students'€™ '€œpsychosocial skills'€, specifically the extent to which they believe they can shape their future outcomes through their own efforts (agency) or their belief in their own abilities (self-efficacy). These results agree very closely with results from a paper by Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman, also coincidentally in AP at the same time and also published this year, thus boosting the confidence in the results from both studies even more; see here for Karthik'€™s summary of his work.

So the basic message seems quite clear: private schools do seem to produce more learning than government schools but, with the exception of English, these differences are not very large.

What about the effect of private schooling on the inequalities in learning?

Concerns about whether private schools cause higher achievement is only a part of the story. To the detractors of private schools, the bigger concern is about whether they entrench socio-economic advantage by providing greater chances to those from more advantaged backgrounds to begin with. It is clear that students in private schools tend to be from richer backgrounds, urban and with a lower proportion of children from disadvantaged castes. The differences are, though, perhaps less muted than most observers assume: while 30% of students in government schools are first generation learners, so are 20% of private school students(see p.15). In thinking of Indian private schools, just as in thinking of other aspects of the education system such as the syllabus, we seem to think disproportionately of only the top end. In some dimensions, most notably gender, the gap in private school attendance seems to have widened over time while in others, such as the rural-urban gap, it has narrowed in recent years. Still, it remains very much the case that access to private schools is far from equitable.

Does this matter for the outcomes of children? IND-SG.123

A leading argument against segregation of students by socio-economic status or other markers such as race and caste has been that being seated in the same classrooms, studying together, has independent learning value and teaches the students valuable social skills. In a particularly important contribution, much less well known than it deserves, Gautam Rao at Harvard University looked at the effect of bringing in students from poorer backgrounds ('€œEconomically Weaker Sections'€) in Delhi to elite private schools on both the rich and the poor students. He finds that having poor classmates makes wealthy students more prosocial and generous, more likely to volunteer for charities in schools, and less likely to discriminate against poor children. For any educational system, these are important outcomes. And this comes without an increase in classroom disruption, or lower test scores in math or Hindi: the only sign of a trade-off at all is a modest (and only marginally significant) decline in English scores.

So, in sum, the empirical evidence thus far on stratification does seem to indicate that there are good reasons to be concerned: the social and economic inequalities in access exist, in some dimensions they may be increasing, and they have important effects on the non-academic (but crucially important) outcomes of children.

The unexplored (and unevaluated) potential of the private sector

The existing evidence on the private sector, as it exists above, is not too optimistic: there are gains in absolute achievement, although often none in some core academic domains, and there are serious concerns about the effect of the inequality in access to private schools which is undesirable in itself but also, as Rao’s study points out, with potentially large negative effects on non-academic outcomes that we hope an education system will deliver. This does not, however, mean that the private sector has little to offer by way of improving the dire learning crisis in Indian schools. What are the ways in which it might do so?

One mechanism, previously written about by Karthik Muralidharan, looks at how Clause 12 of the Right to Education Act may be much better designed to maximize the chances of improving both test scores and equity within the current system and the current legal framework. This is, of course, an important (and feasible) reform that deserves close attention.

But the private sector in education, including all non-state providers of education, might well be able to offer much more. The most unrecognized role of the private sector, but perhaps the most important, is as an engine of innovation. Thinking of the sources of knowledge about learning levels in India in the past decade, and how to improve them at scale, two of the most significant advances have been (a) the documenting, year-after-year, of the immense and stubbornly persistent learning deficits by the ASER reports and (b) the potential for unqualified volunteer teachers to increase learning significantly for children lagging behind the curriculum. The initial impetus on both these fronts came from civil society and non-state actors, especially the PROBE Report and the extensive work done by Pratham. Nor are NGOs and civil society groups the only possible source for such innovation. Various outlets have written about the intriguing example of the Bridge academies in Kenya which with a heavily-scripted curriculum aims to standardize pedagogy and provide the teaching methods support that most teachers have not received – whether because they never did get teaching qualifications or, as likely, the teaching qualifications just did not prepare them for the practical aspects of classroom management, lesson planning and day-to-day pedagogical practice. There are also outfits in India which are engaged in curricular reform, even within the current curriculum: one which I came into contact with in the last year is the XSEED program and there are probably many others I am unaware of.

How can these innovations from the private sector help transform Indian education, given that non-state organizations themselves are unlikely to reach the scale of the public education system and, in the case of the commercial private sector, suffer from the same selection on ability to pay as the private school sector itself?

At least three models spring to mind.

The first is the model of Private Public Partnerships, akin to Charter Schools in the US, where the government pays for the students at the rate in government schools and ensures admissions are non-selective but private operators decide how the money is spent and how teaching and classrooms are organized. Although often controversial, this model is already being considered or experimented upon by various state governments (see e.g. this school in Delhi operated by Ark India or the draft policy in Rajasthan). Experimenting with this model can help answer two key questions that we do not yet have the answers to: first, we know that the private sector can produce similar gains in learning to private schools at a third the total cost but can it translate higher funding into much better results? And second, what is the effect of inserting a high-quality education provider into the market for education -- does it lead to an improvement also in other schools through competition?

The second is the model where innovations are developed in the private sector, enabled by much greater decentralization, but then adopted into the public sector. An example here is Pratham'€™s '€œteaching at the right level'€ approach developed through their extensive work on remedial education but now also extended to government schools. Whether all such knowledge transfers will work in government schools remains, of course, an empirical (and evaluable!) question since it may be that the binding constraint of weak governance is too strong.

The third is a model where private providers supplement existing government schools. Across the country, a very large number of students go to after-school private tuition -€“ so there clearly is a demand for this sort of instruction which is currently met by a large number of unorganized small-scale tutors with little causal evidence of impact. It is in this space of supplementary and remedial instruction that larger-scale private providers could significantly raise quality by promoting suitable pedagogical approaches -€“ by e.g. the Balsakhi program promoted by Pratham or computer adaptive learning tools (such as the Mindspark centres in Delhi run by Educational Initiatives).

Where does all of this leave us?

The existence and the rapid proliferation of the low-cost private schooling sector provides a stark indictment of the current state schooling sector. As Karthik Muralidharan memorably summarized: €œWhat does it say about the quality of your product that you can'€™t even give it away for free'€?

That said, at least on the basis of the evidence we now have, we certainly should not expect the private sector alone to provide a substantive solution to the ‘learning crisis’ in our schools in terms of the basic abilities to read, write and do simple mathematics: while private sector schools are certainly more productive, by producing the same learning gains at a fraction of the total cost spent per student in the state sector, the absolute increment in these fundamental skills is too small compared to the enormous gap between students'€™ actual achievement and any objective standards of quality we expect a functioning school system to deliver. And it is prudent, even when documenting the greater productivity or the modest absolute gains in the private sector, to worry about the effects of a stratified schooling system. Vouchers and other means to enable poorer students to access private schools may help keep inequality of access in check but a lot depends on the precise design of policies (and whether they can be manipulated): past experience on voucher schemes haven'€™t always been successful in this regard (as the Chilean example shows).

The private sector, through greater innovation and greater nimbleness than the government schooling system, might well provide the pedagogical innovations needed to address the incredibly low productivity of Indian schools. Perhaps through PPP models and voucher schemes, it can also demonstrate the true potential of learning levels that current per-student spending in the state sector could produce. And through supplementary and remedial education, it might mitigate the effects of a failing school system.

Eventually, however, solving the learning crisis comprehensively will require substantive reform in the government schooling system. Much as we might wish to ignore the elephant in the room of weak governance in government schools, that probably still is where the most promising reforms lie.  

Early Divergence

Journal Article

Various studies have noted that students enrolled in private schools in India perform better on average than students in government schools. In this paper, I show that large gaps in the test scores of children in private and public sector education are evident even at the point of initial enrolment in formal schooling and are associated with previous attendance in private and public preschools. Children in the sample were aged between 4.5 and 6 years at the time of the survey and were tested on receptive vocabulary and quantitative skills. Most (albeit not all) children in the sample had attended private and/or government preschools and at the time of the survey, about 44% had made a transition into formal schooling. Attending private pre-schools is associated with substantially, and significantly, higher test scores relative to attending public preschools. A considerable portion of this difference can be removed by controls for parental background and selected child characteristics but the gap remains significant. Possible implications of these results are discussed.

Keywords: school, preschool, learning, inequality, private education. 

The final published version of the article is available on the journal website.

‘There’s no future here’: Youth migration, hope and inequality

On a clear day in Morocco you can look across the Strait of Gibraltar and catch sight of the Spanish coast in the distance. Many Moroccan youth look to Europe with hope -- they dream of migrating there for a better life, for opportunities to learn and to work, and to join friends and family who have gone before them.  For some educated young women, going to Europe represents greater personal freedoms; it is also an escape for youth, from the boredom of everyday life and from diminished prospects for getting ahead at home.

I spent a year researching the way migration from a small Moroccan city is structured and challenged along gender and generational lines. Yet these dreams of migration are not peculiar to Moroccan youth. This year'€™s International Youth Day theme highlights migration as a common response to inequality experienced by youth in low-income countries.

The focus on youth migration invites us to reflect on the ways in which some borders are porous, easing flows of music, taste, ideas and information through global media, tourism and technology. At the same time, some borders remain rigid, and young Moroccans wishing to leave their country come up against visa restrictions, financial barriers, gender hierarchies and restrictive border policies. Many of the young people I met in Morocco felt trapped.  '€œYou didn'€™t know you were coming to Alcatraz!'€, one young man told me when I first arrived, likening his city to a prison.  '€œWhy',€ I was asked so often, '€œwould you want to come here?'€

Looking to a better future: Moroccans praying on a patera bound for Spain

Looking to a better future: Moroccans praying on a patera bound for Spain[/caption] The drawing included here from a young person depicts the iconic image of a zodiac (or '€˜patera'€™, the boats used to clandestinely cross the sea to Spain).  I heard these referred to as las pateras de la muerte ('€˜death boats'€™), symbolizing the thousands of lives that have been lost in failed attempts to cross. On the other hand, the patera represents the individual will to overcome desperate conditions, including unemployment, poverty, and political oppression.  In the drawing, the aspiring migrants pray for their lives, the Spanish coast visible in the distance.

The Young Lives study has also been researching what migration means to young people, particularly within the context of childhood poverty and inequality. This work has been carried out with groups of children, under the age of 16, across four countries (Ethiopia, the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, Peru and Vietnam). Our findings highlight the importance of internal migration (within-country) for young people and the value of sibling and family networks for facilitating children'€™s migration.

Children in our study relocate for a variety of reasons, sometimes alongside their families and sometimes on their own. Some of the children in Andhra Pradesh relocate without their families to distant residential hostels so that they can access better quality schooling provided by the government. This creates specific challenges for families when the children are unable to perform certain household tasks (such as help in the fields or around the house) when they return home because they do not learn these skills in the hostel. In one of our study sites in Vietnam, several of the mothers migrate to work in the city, whilethe children stay behind and so experience long periods of maternal absence.  And in places like Peru and Ethiopia, the relocation of children from poorer to better-off households (often from rural to urban areas) is a long-standing tradition in response to family crisis, parental death, acute poverty, and the desire for child companionship.

Fifteen-year old Natalia, in Peru, is well-connected, and she wants to move to the city where her sister now lives. '€˜There, I won'€™t go to the fields anymore (laughs)'.€™ Her mother wants her to continue studying and to go to the city, and referring to their village says, '€˜Staying here, there'€™s nothing, there'€™s no future here.'€™

City dreams: for one rural 12-year-old girl in Peru, a good life would be shopping in Lima City dreams: for one rural 12-year-old girl in Peru, a good life would be shopping in Lima

In this picture (above), a 12-year-old girl from a village in Peru was asked to depict a girl, her age, for whom she imagined life was going well. In her drawing, she locates the girl not in her village but in Lima, the country'€™s capital city, standing at the doors of €˜Ripley€™, a major department store.There is no single definition of child or youth '€˜migration'€™, and young people who never leave their localities may also be affected by migration - through their aspirations, when migrants arrive to their neighbourhoods and schools, or when those close to them decide to leave.

Young people require resources, information and networks to move, whether it be to the next biggest town or abroad. But poorer young people tend to have less access to these things, and some groups face greater barriers to migration. This is another way in which disadvantage and inequality are perpetuated among youth.

I hope the theme of this year'€™s World Youth Day draws attention to the diversity of youth migration and to young people'€™s varied strategies for getting ahead through migration -€“ both within and across national borders. To better support youth in developing countries, we need to know when migration becomes a risk and for which groups of youth, where and at what costs?  But we also need to acknowledge the ways in which young people use mobility and migration to overcome their social exclusion and wider systems of inequality. Acknowledging young people'€™s roles as development actors and the difficult choices they face in daily life is a good start.

Related Young Lives readings:

Gina Crivello (2011) 'Becoming somebody': youth transitions through education and migration in Peru, Journal of Youth Studies 14.4: 395-411

Jo Boyden and Neil Howard (2013) Why does child trafficking policy need to be reformed? The moral economy of children's movement in Benin and Ethiopia, Children'€™s Geographies 11.3: 354-368