57 million children now out of school: what does it mean?

June 13, 2013
by Allison Grossman, Senior Legislative Associate

Earlier this week, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics quietly released a paper that should have received significantly more attention than it did. They reported that, as of 2011, there are now 57 million primary school aged children around the world who are not receiving an education.

So what does that mean? Once you unpack that number, several important pieces emerge. The first is that the world didn’t actually make as much progress from 2010 to 2011 as one might think upon first glance. At the same time as the release of this new figure, UNESCO also revised their statistics for 2010. While we had been using the figure of 61 million children out of school in 2010, that number was revised down to 59 million due to new national-level data made available this year.

Once we know that, it’s clear that the new statistics show a slowing of progress from 2005 to 2011 in getting children into primary school. The global net enrollment rate increased from 87 percent in 2005 to only 89 percent in 2011. If the world continues along at this same rate, we will still be far from reaching the goal of universal primary education by 2015.

Even more alarming is the lack of progress getting children into primary school in sub-Saharan Africa. Over half of the world’s out of school children live in sub-Saharan Africa — some 30 million children. While we have made some progress in other regions around world, this is actually the same number of children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa as five years ago. The reports reveals that one-in-five children in sub-Saharan Africa either have never attended primary school or have dropped out early.

The new data also presents a challenge for decision-makers as we look to 2015 and beyond. Because of the progress that was achieved from 1999 to 2005, the most marginalized and hardest to reach children are often the ones that have been left behind. Of the 57 million children not in primary school, an estimated one-third of these children live with a disability and approximately 40 percent live in conflict-affected and fragile states. Children living in urban environments are more likely to go to school than children in rural areas (an average of 12 percent of children out of school vs. 23 percent, respectively), and wealthy children are more likely than poor children (12 vs. 23 percent). Girls from poor, rural areas are the least likely to go to school. A concerted effort must be made to reach these hardest to reach children to ensure they get into school, do so on time, stay in school once they reach the classroom, and receive a quality education while there.

But instead of tackling these challenges, donors are actually stepping back. Between 2010 and 2011, global aid to education declined by seven percent. Of the 10 major bilateral donor countries to education, six reduced their aid to education in 2011. The U.S. reduced its aid so much that, as of 2011, our government lost its position as the leading bilateral donor of aid to basic education, with the UK taking over the top spot.

Earlier this spring, UNESCO revealed that there is now a $26 billion financing gap annually to reach universal primary education, after domestic government spending and donor aid. This number used to be $16 billion, but part of the reason that the number increased so drastically is because not enough aid has been channeled to low-income countries where the challenges to achieving universal access to education are mounting. In fact, only $1.9 billion of the $5.8 billion in education aid in 2011 went to the poorest countries where aid is needed most. Aid to sub-Saharan Africa actually fell by seven percent between 2010 and 2011. Donors must increase education aid overall while, at the same time, drastically increase the proportion of aid going to the poorest countries.

In 2000, 102 million children around the world were out of school. The international community stepped up to the challenge, greatly increasing enrollment in primary school and bringing that number down to 70.5 million in just five years. But since 2005, gains in enrollment have slowed and the financing gap has only grown larger as the countries most in need have been left behind. The new statistics are a sobering reminder of the job still remaining to reach the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All Goals, and ensure all children have access to a quality primary education.

The United States has a critical role to play refocusing donor attention toward education. In particular, the U.S. must increase its engagement with the Global Partnership for Education. By working only with the poorest countries, GPE focuses its support on those countries that need aid the most. A strong contribution to the Global Partnership for Education in fiscal year 2014 will signal a strengthened U.S. commitment to achieving education for all.

To watch a short video explaining these new findings and to read more details on the statistics, which children are out of school and why, and levels of donor aid, visit http://www.uis.unesco.org/EDUCATION/Pages/reaching-oosc.aspx.

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