- 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.
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.”
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 inequity.
The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.
The Platform produces data, standards and insights, such as the Global Gender Gap Report and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, and drives or supports action initiatives, such as Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, The Valuable 500 – Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap, Hardwiring Gender Parity in the Future of Work, Closing the Gender Gap Country Accelerators, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, the Community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and the Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice.
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.