Time to Get Serious about Education for All, with Progress at a Standstill

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and Karen Mundy, Chief Technical Officer, Global Partnership for Education (GPE)

This blog was also published by the GPE.

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 (see our video).

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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