Up to 70% of Children in Developing Countries to Be Left Unable to Read?

International Day of Education - Education is key to charting the course towards more justice and sustainability, but it is “failing millions of children, youth and adults, increasing their exposure to poverty, violence and exploitation,

Credit: Shafiqul Alam Kiron/IPS

By Baher Kamal
MADRID, Jan 24 2022 – “Unless we take action, the share of children leaving school in developing countries who are unable to read could increase from 53 to 70 percent.”

The alarm bell has been rung by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, in his message on the International Day of Education, marked on 24 January 2022.

In fact, some 1.6 billion school and college students had their studies interrupted at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic — and it’s not over yet, said Guterres, adding that today, school closures continue to disrupt the lives of over 31 million students, “exacerbating a global learning crisis.”

“This generation of students now risk losing 17 trillion US dollars in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14 percent of today’s global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures.”

The UN Education, Sciencia and Culture Organisation (UNESCO), the World Bank and the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) have quantified the economic dimension of this drama.

 

Giant losses

“This generation of students now risk losing 17 trillion US dollars in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14 percent of today’s global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures.”

The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery report,  released in December 2021, shows that in low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in Learning Poverty – already 53 percent before the pandemic – could potentially reach 70 percent given the long school closures and the ineffectiveness of remote learning to ensure full learning continuity during school closures.

According to the three world bodies’ report, simulations estimating that school closures resulted in significant learning losses are now being corroborated by real data.

And it provides some specific examples: regional evidence from Brazil, Pakistan, rural India, South Africa, and Mexico, among others, show substantial losses in maths and reading.

Analysis shows that in some countries, on average, learning losses are roughly proportional to the length of the closures. However, there was great heterogeneity across countries and by subject, students’ socioeconomic status, gender, and grade level.

“For example, results from two states in Mexico show significant learning losses in reading and in maths for students aged 10-15. The estimated learning losses were greater in maths than reading, and affected younger learners, students from low-income backgrounds, as well as girls disproportionately.”

 

Inequities of education, exacerbated

Learning to read is a milestone in every child’s life. Reading is a foundational skill, the report explains, adding that all children should be able to read by age 10. Reading is a gateway for learning as the child progresses through school – and conversely, an inability to read constraints opportunities for further learning.

“Beyond this, when children cannot read, it’s usually a clear indication that school systems aren’t well organised to help children learn in other areas such as maths, science, and the humanities either.”

And although it is possible to learn later in life with enough effort, children who don’t read by age 10 – or at the latest, by the end of primary school – usually fail to master reading later in their schooling career.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted education systems around the world, it was clear that many children around the world were not learning to read proficiently, according to the report. Even though the majority of children are in school, a large proportion are not acquiring fundamental skills.

“Moreover, 260 million children are not even in school. This is the leading edge of a learning crisis that threatens countries’ efforts to build human capital and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

 

No human capital

Without foundational learning, students often fail to thrive later in school or when they join the workforce.

“They don’t acquire the human capital they need to power their careers and economies once they leave school, or the skills that will help them become engaged citizens and nurture healthy, prosperous families. Importantly, a lack of foundational literacy skills in the early grades can lead to intergenerational transmission of poverty and vulnerability.”

As a major contributor to human capital deficits, the learning crisis undermines sustainable growth and poverty reduction.

To spotlight this crisis, the World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics jointly constructed the concept of Learning Poverty and an accompanying indicator.

“Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.”

 

Aggravating global learning crisis

COVID-19 is now wreaking havoc on the lives of young children, students, and youth. The disruption of societies and economies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is aggravating the global learning crisis and impacting education in unprecedented ways.

 

Learning poverty to rise

With more than a complete year of schooling lost in many parts of the world, learning poverty is estimated to rise to 63 percent in developing countries.

 

Gaping inequalities

UNESCO says that this fourth International Day of Education is marked “as our world stands at a turning point: gaping inequalities, a damaged planet, growing polarisation and the devastating impact of the global pandemic put us before a generational choice: Continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.”

Education is key to charting the course towards more justice and sustainability, but it is “failing millions of children, youth and adults, increasing their exposure to poverty, violence and exploitation,” adds UNESCO.

 

Education, a human right

And here goes a needed reminder: the right to education is enshrined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration calls for “free and compulsory elementary education.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, goes further to stipulate that countries “shall make higher education accessible to all.”

 

Challenges

“Education offers children a ladder out of poverty and a path to a promising future.”

But about 258 million children and adolescents around the world do not have the opportunity to enter or complete school, and 617 million children and adolescents cannot read and do basic maths…

And less than 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school and some four million children and youth refugees are out of school.

“Their right to education is being violated and it is unacceptable,” warns the United Nations.

“Without inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all, countries will not succeed in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind.”

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