Are the Education Goals Out of Reach?

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Robert Jenkins, Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, UNICEF

New data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics confirm the need for accelerated efforts to get every child in school and learning  

Education matters. It stands for the hopes and dreams of many children around the world. Education paves the way towards more productive, healthier, sustainable and resilient societies in which children can reach their full potential. However, new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) confirm that the situation of out-of-school children has stalled without significant improvement over the last ten years. In 2018,  one in six or more than 258 million children, adolescents and youth were denied the right to education.

What is particularly alarming is that the children who miss out continue to be the most vulnerable: they tend to be the poorest, those who face entrenched discrimination and, very often, those caught up in conflict.  It is clear that we need to provide tailor-made support to target specific groups of out-of-school children.

The latest figures are part of the annual UIS education data release, which includes 33 of the 43 global and thematic SDG 4 indicators. The UIS has updated its global education database for the school year ending in 2018. It captures historical time series, regional averages and indicators on key policy issues related to school access, participation and completion by education level, learning outcomes, equity, teachers and education financing (see a corresponding paper on the release).

What do the new data tell us?

In 2018, 258.4 million (17%) children, adolescents and youth were out of school. While this may look like a small improvement at first glance, with the number seeming to drop by 3.4 million from 261.8 million in 2017 as reported last year, the reduction reflects a methodological change in the way indicators are calculated (see the UIS fact sheet).  

In November 2018, the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG) approved a change in the calculation method for SDG indicator 4.1.5 that captures the out-of-school rate for children of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary school age. Children of primary school age who are still enrolled in pre-primary education are now considered to be ‘in school’.

The new data also highlight the gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries: In low-income countries, 19% of primary-school-age children (roughly 6 to 11 years old) are not in school compared to just 2% in high-income countries. The gaps grow even wider for older children and youth. About 61% of all youth between the age of 15 and 17 are out of school in low-income countries compared to 8% in high-income countries (see table below).

Notes: GPIA = adjusted gender parity index (female/male out-of-school rate). Male and female out-of-school numbers may not add up to the total number because of rounding.
Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics database.

Girls are the first to be excluded

It is important to keep in mind that not all out-of-school children are permanently excluded from education. Some have attended school in the past but dropped out, others may start school in the future, while a third group is unlikely to ever set foot in a classroom (see figure below).

Obviously, the third group is the cause of greatest concern. Globally, 20% or 12 million out-of-school children of primary age have never attended school and will probably never start.

Girls continue to face the greatest barriers. According to UIS data, 9 million girls of primary school age will never set foot in a classroom compared to about 3 million boys.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, 4 million girls will never attend school compared to 2 million boys. In total, 32 million primary school aged children are out of school across the region, according to UIS estimates. 46% of these children will start at a later age, but one-fifth will remain entirely excluded.

Equity in education: the glue that holds together the entire SDG agenda

The fact that especially girls suffer from limited access to education is only one dimension of a much broader equity challenge. Access to education remains highly uneven in many countries of all income levels. Significant disparities exist in relation to wealth, location, sex and education investment. However, equity lies at the heart of the entire SDG agenda and failing to provide a decent education to all children – no matter where they live or the conditions they face - poses a clear threat to the achievement of SDG 4. Given that education is the foundation for every aspect of human progress, the damage goes even much further. It undermines our chances of reaching every other SDG, from poverty reduction to environmental sustainability.

Putting forward solutions to get all children in school and learning

Without a shift from ‘business as usual’, the world will miss its goal of a quality education for all by 2030, the deadline for SDG 4. Based on current trends, one in every six children will still be out of primary and secondary school in 2030 and only six in every ten young people will complete secondary education, according to projections produced by the UIS and the Global Education Monitoring Report.

While the new data from the UIS confirm the urgent need to expand access to education, this cannot come at the expense of education quality and better learning.

This is why countries have adopted SDG indicator 4.1.1, which tracks the proportion of children who are achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.

Yet if current trends continue, learning rates are expected to stagnate in middle-income countries and drop in Francophone African countries by 2030 mainly due to demographic pressure.

It is therefore critical to support education systems to further promote and realize their potential as a tool for transforming societies and economies. We must ensure that children can attend schools without direct or indirect costs and with a focus on inclusion and quality of education. Targeted efforts are needed to overcome specific barriers that keep the most vulnerable and marginalised children out of school. Education expenditure needs to become equity-focused to direct resources to actual needs and to enable a shift towards greater equity in education. In addition, we must harness the potential of technology to help educate every child, everywhere.

The challenges to education are not inevitable and can be overcome through a combination of intensive action and greater funding. Establishing new public and private partnerships, mobilizing resources, strengthening national Education Management Information Systems, exchanging expertise and scalable action are required to live up to the promise.  We now need real commitment from every single partner, backed by resources, to get the job done. 


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