We Have a Heavy Workload: 263 Million Children and Youth are Out of School

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Aaron Benavot, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report

We have known for years that there are far too many primary-age children out of school: the stagnating numbers have been there for all to see. Far less has been known about the numbers of secondary-age adolescents and youth out of school, and in particular those of upper secondary school age who are – or should be – on the brink of a productive adult life. The numbers are out today, and they are every bit as alarming as we feared they would be.

In total, about 263 million children and youth are out of school, according to new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). This figure is roughly equivalent to the entire populations of Mexico and Russia combined. When broken down, the numbers show that there are still 61 million children of primary school age (about 6-11 years) who are not in the classroom, and 60 million adolescents of lower secondary school age (12-14 years). The total figure also includes, for the first time ever, the UIS estimate of those of upper secondary school age (15-17 years) who are not in school: 142 million. That is a staggering figure: roughly equal to the entire population of Russia. It is simply unacceptable to squander such a precious human resource, just as they enter adulthood and seek to be active and productive members of their societies.

While the upper secondary age out-of-school rates and numbers are immense, we should not be too quick to turn our attention to older youth and away from the unfinished business of leaving no child behind. The new findings, produced in a paper released by the UIS and the GEM Report and discussed today at a side-event at the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York, show that it is the failings at lower levels of education that leave older children stranded. Millions still never set foot in a primary school to begin with. We must address the specific needs of youth but not at the expense of the most marginalized children.

An important reason that there are so many more out of school at an older age than in childhood is that primary and lower secondary school are compulsory in most countries, while upper secondary education is not. Many young people also have to juggle the needs of going to school and having to work at this age.

Breaking down these figures yet further, in line with the theme of the HLPF, Ensuring that no one is left behind, the paper also looks behind the global averages at the vast challenges faced by the poorest children in different regions. At the most extreme end of the scale, in sub-Saharan Africa, children from the poorest households are one third less likely to go to primary school than children from the richest households, according to GEM Report analysis.

Girls are also persistently left behind. Of the 25 million primary school age children who will never set foot in a classroom, the majority – 15 million – are girls, despite all the efforts and progress made over the past two decades. According to UIS data, more than half of these girls – nine million – live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Poverty only adds to the barriers girls face. Regional averages in Northern Africa and Western Asia show equal numbers of girls and boys in school. But these averages mask the realities faced by some of the poorest adolescent girls in the region, with only 85 attending school for every 100 boys of lower secondary school age. Only around three young women from the poorest households go to upper secondary school for every four young men.

The new paper paints a vivid picture of the complex weave of challenges that children face depending on their age, where they live, their gender and the wealth status of their home. Responses, therefore, must also be joined up. This cannot be a case of either primary or secondary education. We cannot be complacent about letting it pass that one child in every nine of primary school age is the very hardest to reach.

And, as we can see from the number of youth who are missing out on upper secondary schooling, failing to reach that marginalized child at the first educational hurdle can pave the way for continued exclusion. If we take away one message from today’s paper, it is that we must not divert already scarce resources away from primary education to the secondary level. What is needed is concerted action to tear down – once and for all – the barriers that keep children and youth out of the classroom. We must ensure no one, no single child or adolescent, is left behind.


Explore the data with the eAtlas of Out-of-School Children.

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