Most countries in Asia-Pacific off-track to achieve SDG4 targets despite increasing numbers of children going to school

New UNESCO-UNICEF report reveals a learning crisis that is leaving the most disadvantaged learners behind

29 September 2021

KATHMANDU/BANGKOK, 29 September 2021 - Despite important progress in the Asia-Pacific, most countries in the region are off-track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) targets on education, according to a new report released today by UNESCO and UNICEF. The landmark report, the 5-Year Progress Review of SDG4 – Education 2030 in the Asia-Pacific, takes stock of progress made in the region over the last five years towards achieving SDG4, and it reveals great disparities in access to quality education across the region.

The report attests that significant progress has been made over the last five years, with more children and adolescents in the Asia-Pacific receiving an education than ever previously. Yet it also points to a larger learning crisis in the region that predates the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, as current proficiency in foundational skills among learners remains limited. Twenty-seven million children and adolescents in the region remain illiterate, 95 per cent of whom are in Southern Asia1. In many of the region’s countries, 50 per cent of children are unable to read and understand a simple sentence at age 10, despite completing their early grades.

‘We must remove the barriers that hinder equality, inclusion and quality in education by building systems that have equity and learning at their core’, noted Shigeru Aoyagi, Director of UNESCO Bangkok, while adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown what is at risk, especially for learners that are most disadvantaged.

Tremendous inequalities have meant that the most disadvantaged learners continue to be left behind due to discrimination, inadequate policies to mitigate exclusion, and inequitable budget allocation and data collection. Disparities have worsened between rich and poor, urban and rural, girls and boys, and other marginalized groups, such as ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, as well as those with disabilities and displaced children. Notably, these disparities persist even in the most developed countries. In Singapore, for example, for every 100 students from the richest households, only 28 students from the poorest households achieve minimum proficiency in mathematics by the end of their lower secondary education.

The Progress Review therefore constitutes an urgent call for collective action towards realizing inclusive and equitable quality education for all children and adolescents in the region.

‘Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries were off track to achieve their commitments to the SDG4 on education. We are calling on governments in the region to urgently double down on investments in education to ensure no child is left behind. It is also extremely important for countries to prioritize the safe reopening of schools to address the huge learning losses that we face in the Asia-Pacific region before it worsens’, states Marcoluigi Corsi, acting Regional Director of UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, demonstrating that years of progress can be reversed within months. Lengthy school closures in some countries, coupled with a growing digital divide, have made continued learning difficult especially for children in rural and remote areas.

Inadequate school infrastructure and limited physical and digital resources remain challenges, with even the most basic materials lacking in some areas. In Afghanistan, for instance, only 5 per cent of primary schools have access to adequate handwashing facilities; in India, only 65 per cent of primary schools have electricity; and in Samoa, only 15 per cent of primary and lower secondary schools have access to computers and digital connectivity.

‘Governments and donors need to protect and expand investments in education, including critical pre-primary and foundational literacy and numeracy,’ said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. ‘This includes ensuring all schools, everywhere, have the infrastructure and resources needed to help children thrive’.

The Progress Review also reveals how progress towards achieving SDG4 is impacted by a wide array of unique country challenges and contexts across the region. An increasing youth population has been met with a falling birthrate, while levels of gender equality vary within and across countries. Moreover, the region remains vulnerable to natural disasters, with an increased number of people recently displaced by climate change. Another 7.7 million have been displaced due to civil conflict. Both kinds of calamity are likely to increase the interruption of children’s learning.


Media contacts

Eliane Luthi
Regional Chief of Communication
UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
Tel: +977-98010 30076
Maria Fernandez

Additional resources


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. 

UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA) works with UNICEF Country Offices in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to help to save children’s lives, defend their rights, and help them fulfil their potential. For more information about UNICEF’s work for children in South Asia, visit and follow UNICEF ROSA on Twitter and Facebook.

For more information about COVID-19, click here.



Education is UNESCO’s top priority because it is a basic human right and the foundation for peace and sustainable development. UNESCO is the United Nations’ specialized agency for education, providing global and regional leadership to drive progress, strengthening the resilience and capacity of national systems to serve all learners and responding to contemporary global challenges through transformative learning.