• Hundreds of millions of children, adolescents and young people have no access to learning and COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem.
  • A UNESCO report shows poverty is the main barrier, ahead of other factors like background, identity and ability.
  • There have been some positive steps towards greater inclusion, but more work needs to be done.

More than a quarter of a billion children and young people have been “left behind” and are totally excluded from education systems around the world, and the pandemic has made the problem worse, UNESCO’s 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report shows.

While most young people in developed countries treat going to school as a given, many of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged face significant obstacles that prevent them from accessing education.

The report looks at rates of participation in education in more than 200 countries. The report highlights deep disparities in access, with poverty identified as the main barrier, ahead of other factors including background, identity and ability.

Of the countries analysed, fewer than 10% had legislation in place to ensure children and young people were fully included in the education system.


Hundreds of millions not learning

Excluding high-income countries in Europe and North America, just 18% of the world’s poorest youth complete secondary school, the report finds. For poor rural young women in at least 20 – mostly sub-Saharan African – countries, few if any complete secondary school.

Children in education
Children in education from 1990 to 2015
Image: UNESCO

As the chart shows, 17% (258 million) of the world’s children, adolescents and youth are not in school. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s 31% of young people.

A vast gap in school attendance rates exists both between wealthy and poorer regions, and between richer and poorer households within individual countries. In low- and middle-income countries, children from the wealthiest 20% of households were three times more likely to complete lower secondary school than those from the poorest neighbourhoods, the report says.

Existing inequalities have been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic

The report estimates that 40% of low- and lower-middle-income countries did not support disadvantaged learners during school shutdowns.

“To rise to the challenges of our time, a move towards more inclusive education is imperative,” says Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO. “Rethinking the future of education is all the more important following the COVID-19 pandemic, which further widened and put a spotlight on inequalities. Failure to act will hinder the progress of societies.”

Children in school.
A high percentage of students in poorer communities do not complete secondary education.
Image: Reuters/Stringer

Education reset?

Aside from poverty, factors including gender, location, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and displacement status can play a role in dictating which children have access to schooling and which do not.

Left-behind children may live in communities where the need for equality isn’t recognized, or may be denied access to education through prejudices towards certain groups of people, such as migrants, those with disabilities or people with special needs.

However, the report has found signs of progress towards inclusion, with some places setting up resource centres for schools, and countries including Malawi, Cuba and Ukraine, thereby helping mainstream schools to accommodate children with special needs.

Efforts are also being made to meet the needs of different learner groups: the Indian state of Odisha has adopted tribal languages in class while Kenya has adapted school curriculums to the nomadic calendar.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the "new normal" and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

Despite these encouraging signs, the barriers to an inclusive education remain high for many of the world’s young people. While lockdown closures have exacerbated the situation for many, the pandemic also offers a unique chance to rethink our approach to educational inclusion.

“COVID-19 has given us a real opportunity to think afresh about our education systems,” says Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report. “But moving to a world that values and welcomes diversity won’t happen overnight. There is an obvious tension between teaching all children under the same roof and creating an environment where students learn best." However, he adds, COVID-19 has showed us that there is a real chance to do things differently, if only we take it.