Priority #1: Put Every Child in School

© 2000 Mohsen Allam, Courtesy of Photoshare - A group of school children in Egypt.

Education is a great driver of social, economic and political progress. As people learn to read, count and reason critically, their prospects for health and prosperity expand exponentially. But our advances in education have not benefited everyone equally—and primary school enrollment rates tell only part of the regrettable story. Millions of children who start primary school are unable to finish and still more miss out on secondary school. Today, some 69 million adolescents—in low-income countries—are receiving no post-primary education. We can no longer afford the cost of excluding them.

Barriers to school enrolment and completion

Unaffordable costs. Poverty is the greatest barrier to high-quality education. Even when primary school is technically free, additional charges for uniforms, textbooks, teacher salaries and school maintenance create financial barriers for many families. In surveys from countries with “free education”, parents consistently say these indirect costs keep them from sending their children to school. While some governments have withdrawn formal fees for basic education, few have dropped fees for secondary education. In sub-Saharan Africa, children from the richest 20 per cent of households reach ninth grade at 11 times the rate of those from the poorest 40 per cent of households.

A shortage of classrooms. The poorest countries need almost 4 million new classrooms by 2015, largely in rural and marginalized areas, to accommodate those who are not in school. More classrooms will alleviate overcrowding, cut class sizes and reduce the long travel distances. Children in rural areas sometimes walk two to three hours to attend school. Dilapidated classrooms also need refurbishing or upgrading to acceptable minimum standards for learning.

Humanitarian emergencies, especially conflict. The need to fulfill the right to education is greatest in humanitarian crises. More than 40 per cent of out-of school children live in conflict-affected poor countries, and millions are forced out of school by natural disasters each year. In emergency situations, education can save and sustain lives. A safe school environment can give children a sense of normalcy during a crisis. Schools can also aid in post-conflict reconstruction. Yet only 2 per cent of all humanitarian aid goes into education. Schools should be a higher priority during humanitarian crises, and national education plans should include contingencies for emergencies.

Gender discrimination. Girls face a unique set of barriers to education, such as child marriage, early pregnancy, and expectations related to domestic labour, not to mention unsafe travel and a lack of sanitary facilities. Many countries under-value girls’ education, with the result that fewer girls enroll and those who do are more likely to drop out. Some 34 million adolescent girls are out of school around the world, and women make up nearly two thirds (almost 500 million) of the world’s illiterate adults. The gender gap has significantly narrowed in primary education but there has been limited progress at the secondary level.

Child labour. Poverty and vulnerability are pushing far too many young children out of school and into the world of work. Some children remain in school, but are disadvantaged doubling up studies with work. For households living in poverty, children may be pulled out of school and into work in the face of external shocks such as natural disasters, rising costs, or a parent’s sickness or unemployment. By leaving school to enter the labour market prematurely, children miss a chance to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of a cycle of poverty. Sometimes children are exposed to the worst forms of labour that is damaging to their physical, mental and emotional well-being.


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