In 2000, world leaders came together and set an ambitious goal: every child would have access to a primary education by 2015. Yet a newly released report from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics finds that almost no progress has been made during the last five years in lowering the global number of young children who aren’t in school.
The situation is grave: nearly 58 million children of primary school age — between 6 and 11 years old — were not enrolled in school in 2012, according to the paper. And 43 percent of them are unlikely to ever set foot in a classroom — that’s 15 million girls and 10 million boys. India, Indonesia, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan each have over 1 million primary school-aged kids out of school.
“It is now without a doubt that the world will not meet its most prominent global education commitment,” the paper concludes, pointing to the fact that momentum has been stalled since 2007 at a constant global out-of school rate of 9 percent.
According to the study, opposing trends are creating the standstill: a decline in out-of-school children in numerous countries due to successful policies, with the biggest education gains in South and West Asia, has been accompanied by a growing school-age population in sub-Saharan Africa. The school-aged population there has risen by a third since 2000, compared to a 10 percent decline in that age group’s population in the rest of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of children currently out of school is around 30 million, right around where it was five years ago.
One problem the report points to is large drop-out rates in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South and West Asia: in those regions, more than one in every three students who started primary school in 2012 will not make it to the last grade of primary school.
Yet the paper then asserts that “rapid progress is possible within a relatively short period of time.” Seventeen countries that accounted for one quarter of the global out-of-school population in 2000 were able to reduce their out-of-school numbers by 86 percent in a little over a decade.
The keys to their success? Increased spending on classrooms and textbooks, cash transfers to households with young kids, more attention to ethnic minorities through teaching mother tongue languages in school, curriculum reform, and elimination of school tuition fees. In Burundi, fee abolition made a huge difference in increasing enrollment numbers in primary schools. This is especially apparent in comparison to its neighbor, Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that didn’t abolish fees until years later.
Of course, violence in developing countries can be a huge factor in keeping kids out of school, with the most recent example seen in the horrific kidnappings of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. One-half of out-of-school children around the world live in conflict-affected countries, and according to the report, “There is a clear peace dividend when countries end hostilities.” Nepal, for instance, saw a huge increase in school enrollment after the end of its civil war.
But not all is lost. The vast improvements in primary education highlighted in the report in places like Rwanda, Nicaragua, and Cambodia are a good sign for the future expansion of access to education. And though the governments in the midst of conflict zones have other thoughts on their minds, they would do well to not forget that besides leading to economic growth, expanding education can be a powerful instrument of creating peace.