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The big picture

© UNICEF/SouthSudan/2014

Education is a fundamental human right: Every girl and boy in every country is entitled to it. Quality education is critical to development both of societies and of individuals, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.  

Education ends generational cycles of poverty and disease and provides a foundation for sustainable development. A quality basic education equips girls and boys with the knowledge and skills they need to adopt healthy lifestyles, protect themselves from HIV and take an active role in social, economic and political decision-making as they transition to adolescence and adulthood. Educated adults are more likely to have smaller and healthier families, to be informed about appropriate child-rearing practices and to ensure that their children start school on time and ready to learn.

© UNICEF/UNI158451/Mawa/Bangladesh/2014
Students attend pre-primary classes at Shilchari Para Kendra in Rangamati on 3 February, 2014.

Reducing inequities and discrimination

Education based on human rights also helps to root out some of society’s persistent inequities. These deprive millions of children, particularly girls, of quality education – and therefore subject them to a life of missed opportunities. Ensuring equity in education builds a foundation for equal opportunity, economic growth, employment creation and productivity.

UNICEF supports development of national capacities to reduce gender and other disparities and discrimination against children who are out of school. This includes girls; children from poor households or living in rural areas; children belonging to ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous groups and castes facing discrimination; and children affected by HIV/AIDS or disabilities.

For UNICEF, equity means that all children have an opportunity to survive, develop and reach their full potential, without discrimination, bias or favoritism. This interpretation is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which pledges the fundamental rights of every child.

© UNICEF/ UNI166314/ Noorani/ Sudan/ 2014
Holding a UNICEF textbook, a young girl child smiles, in grade 1, in a Child Friendly School called Zahra Basic School, in Moosa village, on the outskirts of the city of Kasala in Eastern Sudan.

Fulfilling global education goals

There have been important achievements in increasing enrolment and reducing educational gaps among girls and boys under the Millennium Development Goals, but overall progress has been mixed.

More children than ever are enrolling in primary school at the appropriate ages, contributing to a primary school net enrolment ratio of more than 90 per cent worldwide. The international Education for All initiative has been a major factor in improving enrolment. In most of the 94 countries with available data, increases in overall school attendance have been accompanied by shrinking gaps in attendance between children from the wealthiest and poorest households. Between 1999 and 2012, gender parity in primary school education increased in every region of the world, with the most striking results in South Asia. Secondary school trends in gender parity are following a similar but slower path. Girls are now statistically over-represented in tertiary education at the global level, although there are disparities between various regions and countries.

Yet, despite all the progress, and while primary school enrolment has been increasing steadily, efforts to reduce the number and proportion of out-of-school children have faltered. By the end of 2013 school year, over 124 million children and young adolescents were denied education. Based on estimates for 2013, some 59 million boys and girls are still missing out on their right to primary school education. Globally, two thirds of secondary school-aged children are enrolled in school; in the least developed countries, only one third are. Children from the poorest households are five times more likely to be out of school than those from the wealthiest. 

Large gaps in learning outcomes persist, based on both sex and household wealth. In most countries with available data, girls outperform boys in reading, but learning levels are low for both sexes in many countries. In virtually all countries with available data, children from the richest households are far more likely to achieve minimum learning standards in reading than those from the poorest households. 

To move from enrolment to achievement, considerably more focus is required on learning outcomes and shrinking the substantial wealth-based achievement gaps that still exist.

© UNICEF/UNI179440/Campeanu/SouthSudan/2015
A boy holds a sign that states, “I am going to school,” at the launch of the Back to Learning campaign, in Juba, the capital. Other children are seated behind him.

Getting children in school and learning

Yet despite this good news, over 59 million children remain out of school, and success in reducing this number has regressed. Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging most behind, where more than half of world's out-of-school children resided in 2013. Moreover, dropout before completing a full primary cycle has hardly changed since 1999. Only about 80 per cent of those who were enrolled in primary school in 2012 are expected to reach the last grade. Most of those children live in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. By the 2015 deadline, one in six children in developing and least developed countries – or almost 100 million – will not have completed primary school. 

Poor education quality and a failure to reach the marginalized have contributed to a global learning crisis. This is costing governments $129 billion a year and affecting the most disadvantaged girls and boys. Ten per cent of global spending on primary education is lost on poor quality education that is failing to support teachers and ensure that all children, regardless of their circumstances, are in school and learning. As of 2011, 250 million children – 130 million of whom are in school – were not able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. One in four young people in poor countries is unable to read a single sentence. With this many children and youth not learning the basics, they are lacking the skills they need to get decent employment and lead fulfilling lives.

Well trained teachers are key to improving education quality. An estimated 5.2 million new teachers are needed by 2015 to achieve quality learning for all, coupled with an explicit commitment by governments to reach the most disadvantaged students. This means attracting the best candidates for teaching; providing relevant, ongoing training; sending them to areas where they are needed most; and offering them incentives and a desirable career path to make long-term commitments to teaching.

© UNICEF/UN03023/Gilbertson/2015
November 2015, a girl covered in a heavy blanket, stands outside a tent at the Vinojug reception centre for refugees and migrants in Gevgelija, FYR Macedonia. She is among refugees, primarily from the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Education during and after conflict

Conflict is another major obstacle to education. Children in countries enduring conflict are less likely to attend primary school and more likely to drop out. Around 36 per cent the world’s out-of-school population has been living in conflict-affected countries in 2012, up from 30 per cent in 1999. According to the most recent estimates, there are 34 million out-of-school children and adolescents living in conflict-affected countries.Of approximately 21 million out-of-school children of primary school age living in conflict-affected countries, 95 per cent live in low and lower middle income countries. Girls – making up 53 per cent of the total – are the worst affected. Armed conflicts had significant impact on education in Middle East and North Africa in the last years, where one in every four children and young adolescents (or almost 23 million) are either out of school or at risk of dropping out. 

Re-establishing education after an emergency not only safeguards children’s fundamental right to education, it also plays a critical role in normalizing their environment. This helps them overcome the psychosocial impact of disasters and conflict. During conflict, education can offer knowledge and skills that provide protection, while in the longer term, it can help develop values and attitudes that prevent conflict and build peace.

Achieving gender equality

Gender equality demands appropriate schooling environments, practices free of discrimination and equal opportunities for boys and girls to realize their full potential. Despite progress in recent years, gender disparities remain in many countries. In 2013, 1 out of 10 girls and 1 out of 12 boys were out of school. By the September 2015 deadline, 69 per cent of countries were projected to have achieved gender parity at the primary enrolment level and 48 per cent at the secondary enrolment level. Gender equality must be addressed in national education plans to narrow gaps in access and learning for girls, who continue to suffer severe disadvantage and exclusion in education systems throughout their lives.

Equity in education

Inequality keeps some children out of school because they cannot manage the costs, do not identify with the content or suffer from discrimination. Children who cannot go to school for whatever reason may be forced to start working too early. This will prevent them from developing to their full potential, reduce their lifetime productivity and deprive society of their potential skills and innovations.

Equity in education has two dimensions: fairness and inclusion. Fairness requires ensuring that personal and social circumstances – such as gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin – do not interfere with achieving educational potential. Inclusion requires ensuring that everyone receives a basic minimum standard of education – every boy and girl should be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. The two dimensions are closely intertwined. UNICEF works to tackle obstacles to equity and to overcome the effects of social deprivation, which often prevents children from getting a quality education.



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