In 1954, the United Nations General Assembly set aside November 20 as Universal Children’s Day, when the world recognizes the importance of advancing children’s welfare across the globe.
Thirty years ago, the UN used this annual observance to adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which further specified the many rights – among them education – that all children deserve.
The anniversary of that commitment prompts us to step back and assess how the world’s children have done over the past three decades with regards to education.
Out-of-school children around the world
As we celebrate remarkable advances, unacceptably large numbers of children – hundreds of millions, especially in the poorest countries and among the most disadvantaged communities – are still missing out on the once-in-a-lifetime, basic human right to unlock their full potential.
The gains in developing countries lag far behind those in wealthier countries, and in the past decade the pace of progress has stagnated, meaning it could be decades before the vision of ‘education for all’ becomes reality.
Around the world, the percentage of primary through secondary school age children who were not in school dropped from just under 30% in 1988 to about 17% in 2018, the latest year for which UNESCO Institute for Statistics data are available.
Low-income countries in that same 30-year span reduced their out-of-school children from 57% to 32%, and lower middle-income countries went from 39% to 21%.
Still too many children can’t exercise their right to education
The progress stops far short of what we might have expected after years of more intensive investment than ever into education by wealthier and developing countries alike. Indeed, close to 260 million children and youth aged 6 to 17 are still without schooling and about the same number are in school but not learning.
Just as troubling: the rate of progress has slowed in recent years. The percentage of out-of-school children and youth in low-income countries dropped a mere two percentage points from 2009 to 2018, from 34% to 32%.
In lower middle-income countries, the decline was slightly steeper – more than 6 percentage points over the last 10 years, but hardly enough to drive the sort of change to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of educating all the world’s children by 2030.
And, even as increasing numbers of girls have received the education they need and deserve, 130 million girls worldwide are still out of school.
Bright spots in some countries
To be fair, such big-picture averages obscure the success stories of many developing countries that have worked diligently in recent years with support from GPE and other development partners to extend schooling to more of their children.
Burkina Faso, for example, has steadily increased its primary school enrollment from 60% in the early 2000s to 88% by 2019.
About 85% of all primary age children in Ethiopia are in school, up from about 50% a decade and a half ago. In Nepal, a seemingly stubborn, decades-old education gap between girls and boys narrowed to only about 1% by 2016.
Approximately 88% of all children (and, for the last few years, more girls than boys), now complete primary school in Cambodia.
And a range of other developing countries are engaging in rigorous, long-term education planning that leads to better, more professionally managed school systems and ultimately gives better quality education to more children.
A loss the world cannot afford
Even so, it’s strikingly clear that, since the adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child 30 years ago today, the world continues to face a global education crisis. At current trajectories of progress, this crisis won’t be solved any time soon.
The good news is that leaders around the world are increasingly recognizing that the crisis is real and that they must do more to address it.
Hanging in the balance most directly are the lives of hundreds of millions of people who will continue to miss out on the many advantages that come with high-quality learning. Indirectly, their loss is the entire world’s loss.