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The number of children out of school is growing: What happened?

The number of children out of school is growing: What happened?

Since 1990, the global community has remained committed to providing primary education to all children. At least in writing. Despite significant gains over the past 25 years, a new UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) report released this week indicates that the number of children and young people out of school is increasing.

The number that you’ve seen associated with out of school children recently has been 58 million. That is representative of children 6-11 years old, of primary school-age, who are not attending formal primary schooling. Julia Gillard used this figure one day before the new report was released. Forbes did too recently. Time to update those talking points.

A young Ghanaian boy enrolled in a complementary basic education class learning in his mother tongue. Credit: Brendan Rigby

The world has known for a long time that many countries were off track to meet their education commitments. Barely half of the 164 countries that signed up to the Education For All (EFA) goals achieved universal primary education in 2015. Education is universally acknowledged as the weapon, silver bullet and solution to ending poverty and inequality. Yet, the rhetoric hasn’t been met with sustained action. No one showed Tom Cruise the money.

This new report, UNESCO UIS Policy Paper 22 / Fact Sheet 31, paints a discouraging picture. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Between 2010-2013, the number of children out of school increased by 2.4 million to a total of 59 million.
  • Gains made in reducing the gender gap are slipping. Girls are still more likely than boys to be out of school at the primary age.
  • Gender inequity is regional, with sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia the main culprits. 80% of out of school girls in the latter are unlikely to ever start formal school compared to 16% of out of school boys.
  • Syria: between 2012-2013, the number of out of school children increased from 300,000 to 1.8 million.
  • 19 countries account for 50% of the out of school population. (Although I actually think this is higher as list provided by the report excludes countries such as Ghana and Papua New Guinea).
  • Foreign aid to basic education has decreased, and is 11% lower than in 2010. Total aid to education was 4% lower in 2013 than in 2010.
  • Low-income countries continue to miss out, except Myanmar. “Myanmar alone accounted for 66% of the total increase in aid to basic education for low income countries” (p.10).

The report offers two primary reasons for these trends. First, the inability of governments in sub-Saharan Africa to keep up with rising demand. The inputs-based model of education system building (i.e “More teachers, more classrooms and more textbooks”) is no longer adequate. And, hasn’t been for a long time.

To reach the most marginalised and excluded children, we need targeted interventions that challenge traditional models.

I highlight one approach, complementary basic education (CBE), in a recent blog post for the Lowy Institute. Ghana, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Myanmar, Malawi and many others have CBE programs, which plug the gap and provide primary school equivalent education to out of school children.

This means that there may in fact be less than 59 million children out of school. Much less. Children in CBE programs are usually not counted as being in school, but they are learning and sometimes out-performing their peers in formal schooling.

Second, conflict in Syria has displaced children’s right to education. It is estimated there are now close to 2 million out of school children in Syria. Such a disruption to education will be very challenging to mitigate in the long-term. Although attempts are being made, particularly outside the borders, any hope of rebuilding the system post-conflict may need to rely on target approaches such as CBE. This is relevant for the millions of children displaced by conflict and in protracted refugee contexts.

Featured image of a Ghanaian student in a CBE program in northern Ghana. Credit: Brendan Rigby.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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