Time to get serious about education for all, with progress at a standstill
New figures released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics reveal that there hasn’t been any progress in reducing the global number of out-of-school children, adolescents and youth over the past decade. These figures call for far greater global investment in education at all levels to ensure progress is made towards achieving SDG 4, including more resources for data collection and analysis.
February 28, 2018 by Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Karen Mundy, Global Partnership for Education|
Family in Montserrado County, Liberia.
CREDIT: GPE/Kelley Lynch

The latest figures on out-of-school-children are sobering, to say the least. According to new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), progress remains at a standstill. We still have about 263 million – or one out of five – children, adolescents and youth worldwide out of school and this number has barely changed over the past five years.

Despite strenuous efforts to get every child into primary school, there has been little or no progress at the global level over the past decade, with 9% of children of primary age denied their right to education in 2008, and 9% still out of school today.

New UIS data shows progress has stalled

The new findings are part of a major release of UIS education data and indicators related to Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), timed to inform the Fourth SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee Meeting, which opens today in Paris, where decision-makers will debate strategies and progress towards the goal. Given the ambitious commitment to provide a quality primary and secondary education for every girl and boy by 2030, the world simply cannot allow progress to stall any longer.

This is not to belittle the impressive progress made by many countries over the years to remove barriers to education, such as school fees, lack of school buildings, lack of teachers, and so on. As a result, millions of children who once had little or no chance of an education are now in the classroom.

Nevertheless, 63 million children of primary school-age (about 6 to 11 years) are still out of school, in addition to 61 million adolescents of lower secondary age (12 to 14 years) and another 139 million youth of upper secondary age (or one in every three between the ages of 15 and 17). These youth are four times as likely to be out of school as children of primary age, and more than twice as likely to be out of school as those of lower secondary age.

This represents a massive waste of potential – of the young, productive, creative and dynamic talent that is necessary to power sustainable development over the decades to come.

Sub-Saharan Africa has highest numbers of out-of-school children and youth

The UIS figures confirm that some regions are lagging behind. As in previous years, sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest out-of-school rates for all age groups, and accounts for more than half (34 million) of the 63 million out-of-school children of primary age. Southern Asia has the second highest number of out-of-school children, with 10 million.

Girls continue to face barriers to education in most regions. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls of every school-age group are more likely to be excluded from education than boys. For every 100 boys of primary age out of school, there are 123 girls denied the right to education. 

The good news is that the data suggest that girls who are able to start school tend to pursue their studies. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the adjusted gender parity index falls slightly from 1.23 for the primary age group to 1.11 for lower secondary and upper secondary age populations.  

Children in developing countries fare the worst

There are massive disparities between out-of-school rates in the world’s richest and poorest countries. They can be seen at primary level, with primary education the norm across the world’s high-income countries, while 20% of children in this age group are denied the right to education across low-income countries.

The gap widens with age: 59% of youth of upper secondary age are not in school in low-income countries, compared to 6% of youth in high-income countries. Having one in every five children, adolescents and youth out of school globally is bad enough – but in low-income countries, that rises to one in three.

The problem lies in a toxic mix of continued lack of access for some children (often the most disadvantaged) and a learning crisis, with too many of the children who are in school failing to meet minimum standards in reading or mathematics. According to UIS data, one in every six children and adolescents is not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading or mathematics – and most of them are in the classroom.

Children who go to school must learn more

There is a clear need to ensure that education delivers for every child. This requires comprehensive approaches to reach those denied an education because of who and where they are, and to ensure that they learn what they need to know once they are in the classroom.

Such approaches are built on a foundation of good data. The indicators and methodologies developed by the UIS and the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) are now gaining traction and were endorsed by the meeting of the Technical Cooperation Group on SDG 4 Education 2030 Indicators(TCG) in January, with countries starting to report a total of 33 global and thematic indicators in 2018.

GPE will complement GAML and the broader goals of strengthening national data systems through its new Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) Funds approved by the GPE Board in December 2017. GPE will make investment in global goods in the areas of learning assessment systems and better data systems through a competitive call for proposals. The specific aim of these funds is to ensure that global and regional actors are in place to work with countries to support best practices in data. Additionally, GPE is working with UNESCO to host a meeting of developing countries and multilateral partners interested in tackling EMIS challenges in April 2018.

Capturing data on youth who missed out on education

The UIS is also developing new indicators on those of upper-secondary age who are the most likely to be out of school, and so often join the ranks of those who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). The UIS is exploring the insights that disaggregated data on NEETs could provide on, for example, youth levels of educational attainment, basic skills acquisition, and preparation for labour market entry.  In another important area, the UIS is working on expanding data on children with disabilities – with support from GPE.

The question is whether countries have the capacity to provide and report on the data that we need to achieve the global education goal. Resources are needed, as a matter of urgency. The recent GPE Replenishment Conference in Dakar, Senegal, saw the first developing countries starting to make funding commitments. The task now is to leverage these investments through the production and use of good data, drawing on the SDG 4 investment case, which confirms the value of channelling resources to data systems. GPE’s new KIX Funds will provide reinforcing opportunities for ensuring stronger data systems are in place in low income and fragile contexts.

The new figures on out-of-school children reinforce calls for far greater global investment in education at all levels to ensure progress towards SDG 4, including more resources for data gathering and analysis to monitor the pace and equity of that progress.

As Gayle Smith, CEO and President of the ONE Campaign put it so well in Dakar: "We need to match the investment of political and verbal capital with financial capital. Take a pause from the fires you are putting out today, to prevent one tomorrow." 

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Time to get serious in particular about language of instruction: many learners do not have a command of the language of the classroom. It isn't rocket science. It is, however, a first-order issue: it affects everything else. We need serious attention to be paid to it in teacher education, textbook design and school language policy.

I totally agree John, that language of instruction is a key . If there is a common curriculum in literacy and numeracy that will help to get all the children and parents literate that too would go a long way.

I would like to seek some clarification concerning this quote from the blog, 'The recent GPE Replenishment Conference in Dakar, Senegal, saw the first developing countries starting to make funding commitments.' This quite difficult to comprehend considering that in past replenishment developing countries have made commitments to funding education. During the previous replenishment, developing country partners made some significant funding commitments, did that count? Please clarify the quote in the light of the concerns that the blog raised.

Thanks for your comment Charles. Indeed you are right that developing countries have been committing their resources to education well before the Dakar conference, and at a much larger scale than external donors. That sentence was referring to the fact that at the GPE Financing Conference, Senegal committed US$2 million to the GPE Fund, beyond what they have also committed as part of their domestic budget allocation to education. This is the first time a developing country has done so. This should have been expressed more clearly in the blog, so thank you for allowing me to clarify.

Thanks Karen for the clarification.Senegal really deserves to be commended for that gesture. It certainly reveals a hidden potential worth tapping into. Congratulations for a successful replenishment and I wish the GPE well in its endeavours.

The HELP Foundation, an NGO, is focused on promoting ECD and basic education for the Deaf in South Africa. Given an indifferent bureaucratic approach towards the Deaf, their education (rather, non-education) is atrocious - much worse than the stats you give in your blog. Would GPE and UIS be interested in receiving an overview of Deaf education in South Africa? If so, to which address(es) should I send it? MP

Hi Martin, thanks for your comment. Feel free to share the information you mention here: information@globalpartnership.org, and I will forward it to the appropriate persons. Note however that South Africa is not eligible for GPE support based on the country's economic indicators.

I think focusing on small community literacy and numeracy programmes will help a long way. Parents and children must be made at least literate if not totally educated. Once they have the basic skills they can progress from there. Small investments in small schools, personalised attention and meeting the needs of the hour is important.

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