New UNESCO report shows COVID-19 leaving vulnerable children behind

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COVID-19 is likely to become another factor in exclusion to education globally. Photo by: Bertha Wangari / © European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — The “2020 Global Education Monitoring Report,” released June 23 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, shows progress is slowing on the global out-of-school rate for primary and secondary school-age children, and COVID-19 will only make it worse.

According to the report, an estimated 258 million children are out of school — and 97 million of these are in sub-Saharan Africa, and that number is growing. This means that by 2050, more than one in 10 adults in the region will not have completed primary education.

“It is a huge challenge,” Manos Antoninis, director of the report, told Devex. “The report shows that the share of sub-Saharan Africa in the out-of-school-age population is increasing rapidly. In 1999 it was only 12% in the global population, and by 2030 it will be 25% — more than double. If Africa is not doing well, we are in trouble globally.”

“If you want to know which children are not in school, it is not enough just to ask the government directly.”

— Manos Antoninis, director, “2020 Global Education Monitoring Report”

While data shows that global completion rates — adolescents completing secondary education — are on the rise, the past 15 years have also seen the percentage of adolescents-mastered basic education skills stagnating.

“In fact, if anything, it has probably gone down a little bit in rich countries,” Antoninis said. “This is a problem. The best recipe we have is to help children continue to go through the education cycle and complete basic education. Otherwise, we have no chance of achieving the Global Goals.”

Poverty and gender are barriers to education. But the report — with the theme of inclusive education — finds that remoteness, disability, ethnicity, migration, displacement, sexual orientation, religion, and beliefs create “layers of exclusion.” And over the coming year, COVID-19 is likely to become another factor in exclusion to education globally.

Challenges in inclusive education

In sub-Saharan Africa, the report says that teachers may fear including children with albinism in the classroom. In the Gulf States, children and youth classed as stateless cannot enroll in public education. Rohingya who are internally displaced or refugees have no access to formal public schools. Roma children in Europe are more likely to be placed in special schools. And in Latin America, learning materials exclude or misrepresent the history of Afro-descendants.

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One of the greatest challenges to inclusion is the fact that there is no consistent definition of inclusive education or policies and programs to support the idea — if they even exist. Through individual or community biases, particular groups of children can become segregated from mainstream education.

“Inclusive education is not just about supporting children with disabilities,” Antoninis said. “The barriers that exist for children living with a disability are the same as those that children face who speak a minority language, are part of a religious minority, who are a sexual minority. The mechanism and biases that exist that prevent a student from going to school are the same. So the term inclusion needs to be broad.”

But the report finds that a third of countries do not have a definition of inclusion in their education system. Of those that have a definition, only 57% cover multiple marginalized groups in that definition.

“Almost two-thirds of the world have a long way to go to ensure that their definition is broad enough to cover all of those at risk of being excluded,” Antoninis said.

To achieve inclusion, Antoninis recommends that governments employ simple, non-costly approaches.

“Inclusion can be about how students are helped to mix in the classroom and how teachers can reach out to the families,” he said. “This is inclusiveness, and it doesn’t cost a penny.”

But Antoninis warned that making sure that each teacher understands the potential and value of every student and that they don’t enter the classroom without bias requires a long-term commitment — and the political will to make it happen.

Financial barriers to education

While there are approaches that enable better access to inclusive education, funding is a challenge — and an important theme in the report, which attempts to understand how a country aims to enable an inclusive and equitable education system through financing mechanisms. Currently, there are many gaps.

“When it comes to education financing, the first to look at is how a government provides funding to schools and regions in general,” Antoninis said.

“A big problem we identify is that they don’t actually want to know which areas are most in need. They try to treat every region and school as the same, but this is not the best way to respond to challenges in the education system — you really need to make sure you provide more money to areas that are not well-funded or have poorer populations with the money-making up for this disadvantage.”

But there is also a need for governments to think beyond education and consider how wider social support helps families encourage children with schooling.

“Education ministries often forget that it is not just them who affect whether children complete school and learn,” Antoninis said. “They have to work with other ministries and think in a more cross-sectoral way. Many poorer countries struggle to do that.”

The results of funding inadequacies are seen in the resulting data.

The data challenges

Antoninis explained that through the Sustainable Development Goals, the data available to better understand access to education has broadened.

“Before 2016, officially we were stuck with some government data that had a very limited range,” he said.

But the report highlights the limitations beyond the major indicators of out-of-school children and their completion rate, with three key areas of data important to better understand where barriers to education may exist.

“If you want to know which children are not in school, it is not enough just to ask the government directly,” Antoninis said. “The best way is to get that data indirectly from household surveys.”

Household surveys can provide an in-depth understanding of who out-of-school children and adolescents are, where they live, and what disadvantages they may face. But in analyzing the availability of household surveys globally, the report found that 41% of countries — covering 13% of the global population — do not have household surveys that allow this level of assessment.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make this happen, with North Africa and Western Asia regions where this data is particularly weak,” Antoninis said.

Also of poor quality is data learning outcomes. In Africa, the past five years have seen just 14 of the 51 countries able to report on learning outcomes. But to assess impact, more recent and more frequent data is required. And data on teachers — providing insight into their qualifications and training is according to Antoninis is not comparable.

And moving forward, it is anticipated that the coming year will see COVID-19 create more barriers to the access of data, as surveys are unable to be conducted for health and safety reasons.

COVID-19’s expected impact

When it comes to education, Antoninis said that COVID-19 is already playing a role in creating more exclusion from education.

“For hundreds of millions of people, learning has completely stopped,” he said.

The movement to online learning means that just 12% of households in high-income countries, which have access to the internet at home, can support the education of their children. Even in countries such as France, a few weeks into the lockdown saw 8% of students lose contact with their teachers.

Antoninis said there is a concern that the students disconnected may permanently leave the school system. “We definitely worry,” he said.

When it comes to producing the 2021 edition of the report, which will be about the role of the private sector in education, Antoninis said it will be a struggle

“Data from this academic year may trickle in, and there will be challenges in accessing household surveys which we rely on. It is still unclear how countries are reporting and collecting data. We just have to wait and see.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.