On February 1 of this year, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) convened in Dakar, Senegal, for its third summit focused on improving education in developing countries. Its mission was simple: to raise $3.1 billion in new investment so that children living in developing countries affected by extreme poverty, hostility and conflict might have access to a quality basic education – and this goal was met with some success. At the event, donors pledged a total of US$2.3 billion to the GPE and developing countries pledged US$110 billion for education purposes for 2018-2020, with an aim to see every child receiving an education as per Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: inclusive and equitable quality education for all.
There have been some remarkable successes in terms of global access to education since the United Nations named quality education for all as its 4th SDG, with 72 million more children in primary school in 2015 in GPE partner countries compared to 2002. Major progress has been made towards increasing enrolment rates in schools particularly for women and girls, and basic literacy skills have improved tremendously. But greater efforts are required to make even greater strides in achieving universal education goals. A quality education is key to improving people’s lives, growing economies, enabling equitable access to employment and promoting sustainable development – even combatting climate change. But in developing countries, children’s access to education continues to be limited, particularly for the most vulnerable of children; girls and those with disabilities. Here are the key reasons why this is the case.
Lack of funding remains the number one barrier preventing children in developing countries from an education, despite all the GPE’s efforts. Global donor support for education is decreasing at an alarming rate, with funding in education aid 4 percent lower than it was in 2009. While it is true that money doesn’t necessarily solve everything, it certainly helps provide the infrastructure and resources required to accommodate new students. More classrooms can alleviate overcrowding, cut class sizes and reduce long travel distances in developing countries where it is not rare to have over 100 students in the same classroom, taught by one teacher. The costs required to attend school can present another barrier for families, but some developing countries are addressing this by abolishing school fees for students who cannot afford them. Malawi did this in 1994, Uganda in 1997 and Mozambique in 2003. In each case, the change in school policy was accompanied by a large increase in enrolment get more children into school, proving the success of such schemes. Why is this not being replicated on a larger scale, I wonder?
Having no classroom is, obviously, a secondary factor preventing global access to education. In countries in sub-Saharan Africa, hundreds of school-attending children are often squished together in overcrowded, dilapidated classrooms, if not on a field or outdoor “classroom”. This type of learning environment can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to learn, especially if the environment is hot or painfully overcrowded. The statistics are telling: sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest out-of-school rates for all age groups, accounting for more than half of the 63 million out-of-school primary-aged children around the world. South East Asia has the second highest number of out-of-school children at 10 million. Many schools in developing countries lack even the most basic facilities such as running water and toilets, leading to the exclusion of the most vulnerable students such as girls or those who are sick and who cannot fathom spending the day in an environment where there is no access to a private, sanitary toilet. In Chad, for example, just one in four schools has a toilet, and only one-third of those toilets are designated for girls only.
A limited access to education resources and English tutoring is also feeding the situation in developing countries, with as many as six or more students often sharing outdated and over-used textbooks. In Tanzania, a mere 3.5 percent of grade 6 pupils have their own textbook, while in Cameroon, there are approximately 11 primary school students sharing one between them. Having basic resources such as textbooks, paper and stationary are vital to delivering a basic lesson but these remain a rarity in many of the developing world’s classrooms.
Deeply entrenched gender inequalities are also preventing much of the developing world from having access to education. Of the 124 million children and adolescents out of school around the world, 63 million – or just over half – are girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, the statistics are far direr, with 123 girls denied the right to education for every 100 boys of primary school age. Gender disparity and discrimination is the result of a variety of factors: cultural norms that favor boys’ education to girls’, limited resources; lack of private and separate latrines; and classroom environment, where girls may face violence, sexual exploitation or other punishment. In families with limited resources, parents are more likely to send a male to school than a female, in the assumption that a daughter can be married off and supported by her husband. The likelihood of a girl being married off prior to the age of 18 in many developing countries is a major factor harming girls’ chances of completing their education. If every girl had a secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64 percent, UNICEF predicts.
Children with a disability are also excluded from having equitable access to education, despite the fact education is a universal right. In some of the world’s poorest countries, a combination of a lack of suitable infrastructure and funding, discrimination and a lack of inclusive teaching methods leave some 95 percent of children with disabilities out of school. In many cases, the mere difficulty of travelling to a school campus every day is what prevents young disabled students from attending school.
For as much as a quarter of the world’s school-age children – or 464 million – living in a conflict or warzone is depriving them of the right to attend school due to the widespread shutdown of schools and education services. During conflict schools are often destroyed, shutdown or unsafe, with students often forced out of school and forced into labor or permanently displaced. In Syria, for example, over 6,000 schools are currently out of use because they are occupied by the military or have been turned into an emergency shelter. Even if schools are kept open, the risk of travelling to and from school each day is one that many parents’ do not wish their children to take and forbid them from doing so.
The situation in terms of education in developing countries is dire. Ensuring that children in developing countries have access to education improves their long-term chances of earning a livelihood, leads to better health outcomes and enhances economic and health prospects in such countries. So why is it that we continue to face such basic hurdles in the provision of global education? The inequalities in
global education are alarming: children in developed countries today have access to multiple technological devices in every classroom, access to online academic support, and the ability to enroll in academic enrichment programs on weekends, should they so desire, while children in poorer places continue to be denied the right to a basic education.
Education is a human right. When will it become one enjoyed by all, and not just the lucky few?