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Global Education Monitoring Report

Target 4.1: Primary and secondary education

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes

Chapter 8 PDF

CREDIT: Save the Children. Teacher and schoolchildren outside of their school centre in Honduras.

  • There were 64 million out-of-school children of primary school age in 2017, which means their number stalled for a tenth year in a row.
  • Using 2013–2017 data, completion rates were 85% for primary education, 73% for lower secondary and 49% for upper secondary.
  • This GEM Report is proposing a new model to use survey and census data more efficiently to project completion rates to the most recent year.
  • To achieve universal secondary school completion by 2030, all children need to enrol in primary school by 2018, yet the intake rate in low income countries was 73% in 2016.
  • In total, 387 million or 56% of children of primary school age and 230 million or 61% of adolescents of lower secondary school age did not reach the minimum proficiency level in reading. A new proposal has been made for the minimum proficiency level for this indicator.
  • Data over 15 years from a survey of grade 4 students’ reading skills, suggest that middle income countries have progressed towards meeting the minimum benchmark by about one percentage point per year, on average, which means they are not likely to meet the target by 2030.
  • Citizen-led assessments and a new module in the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys offer valuable insights into the learning achievements of children not in school.
  • The rights granted by non-discrimination conventions do not guarantee migrant children’s right to education in practice. Rigid documentation requirements, whether legally required or arbitrarily imposed by local gatekeepers, can prevent access.

Children born between 2010 and 2014 may be considered the SDG generation. The oldest reached age 5 in 2015 and, in many countries, were expected to be in pre-primary education in 2015/16 — the start of the SDG period (2015–2030). The youngest will turn 16 in 2030, potentially the latest age for timely lower secondary completion. For the SDG generation to achieve universal secondary completion by 2030, the current cohort needs to enter primary school on time. The global adjusted net intake rate into the first primary grade was 86% in 2017.

Some 64 million children of primary school age, or 9%, were out of school in 2017, as were 61 million adolescents of lower secondary school age (16%) and 138 million youth of upper secondary school age (36%). The primary rate is almost unchanged since 2008. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a growing share, except for primary school age; conflict has led to children leaving school in other regions, especially in Western Asia (Figure 7).

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, a survey assessing grade 4 students every five years, provides the main new cross-national survey data for the global indicator on learning outcomes. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the percentage meeting the low benchmark increased from 56% in 2001 to 65% in 2016, i.e. by less than one percentage point per year. Some countries, including Morocco and Oman, improved at a rate bringing them within reach of the target by 2030; in others, e.g. Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, the share of students achieving minimum proficiency did not increase, implying it will be very hard to meet the target.


According to 2013–2017 household survey data, completion rates were 85% for primary, 73% for lower secondary and 49% for upper secondary education. However, there is a time lag for household survey and census data, and multiple sources may provide conflicting information.

Following the example of the health monitoring community, the GEM Report team developed a model to estimate completion rates. Projecting older cohorts’ completion rates backwards can provide a long-term view of the rates’ expansion path in a country. The current level of the indicator can be estimated with a short-term extrapolation from the most recent data. The approach reconciles overall patterns and trends across all data sources rather than taking the latest available estimate at face value.

Figure 7: Sub-Saharan Africa has a growing share of the global out-of-school population