• World is facing a hidden education emergency
  • Around 10 million children could be out of school forever because of the COVID-19 pandemic – that is more than the total number of children living in Canada.
  • COVID-19 leaves estimated $77 billion gap in education spending for world’s poorest children
  • Children in 12 countries are at extremely high risk of dropping out of school forever
  • In another 28 countries, children are at moderate or high risk of not going back to school
  • Girls are at increased exposure to gender-based violence and risk of child marriage and teen pregnancy during school closures
  • Save the Children calls for increased funding of education, including conversion of debt liabilities into investment in children

Toronto, July 13th – Deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could force at least 9.7 million children out of school forever by the end of this year, with millions more falling behind in learning, Save the Children warns in a new report launched today.

Girls are likely to be much worse affected than boys, with many forced into early marriage. As the impacts of the recession triggered by Covid-19 hits families, many children may be forced out of school and into labour markets.

In its report, Save the Children is calling for governments and donors to respond to this global education emergency by urgently investing in education as schools begin to reopen after months of lockdown. The organization is also urging commercial creditors to suspend debt repayments by low-income countries – a move that could free up $14bn for investment in education.

“It would be unconscionable to allow resources that are so desperately needed to keep alive the hope that comes with education to be diverted into debt repayments,” said Bill Chambers, CEO of Save the Children.

The organization calls for governments to use their budgets to ensure children have access to distance learning whilst lockdown measures remain; and to support children who have fallen behind.

The Save Our Education report reveals the devastating effects the COVID-19 outbreak is set to have on learning. In a mid-range budget scenario, the agency estimates that the recession will leave a shortfall of $77 billion in education spending in some of the poorest countries in the world over the next 18 months. In a worst-case scenario, under which governments shift resources from education to other COVID-19 response areas, that figure could climb to an astonishing $192 billion by the end of 2021.

The impending budget crunch comes after lockdown measures saw a peak of 1.6 billion children out of school, globally.

“All children have the right to education. Yet, around 10 million children could be out of school forever because of the pandemic – that is more than the total number of children living in Canada. This is an unprecedented education emergency and governments must urgently invest in learning.

“We are at risk of unparalleled budget cuts which will see existing inequality explode between the rich and the poor, and between boys and girls. We know the poorest, most marginalized children who were already the furthest behind, have suffered the greatest loss, with no access to distance learning – or any kind of education – for half an academic year,” said Chambers.

Before the outbreak, 258 million children and adolescents[i] were already out of school. A Vulnerability Index in the report[ii] shows that in 12 countries, mainly in West and Central Africa but also including Yemen and Afghanistan, children are at extremely high risk of not returning to school after the lockdowns lift – especially girls.

In another 28 countries, children are at moderate or high risk of not going back to school and of the longer-term effects of widening inequalities. In total, Save the Children estimates that some 9.7 million children could be forced out of school by the end of this year.

Currently, more than 1 billion children[iii] are out of school due to the global pandemic. Aisha*, 15, from Ethiopia is one of them:

“Three months ago, things were very good for me. I was enjoying school in grade six. When we were in school, we used to play with our friends and learn. The school also used to provide us with a meal every day. Now after this virus, I can’t go to school, and I can’t see my friends. I miss my school and my friends so much.

“It has been nearly three months since schools were closed and like many of the children here, I spend most of my time looking after the livestock and I sometimes help my mother with household chores like cleaning and cooking.”

Many of the top-12 countries in the report’s index already have high out of school rates and a sharp divide in school attendance along with wealth and gender lines. These factors are likely to be exacerbated by school closures, with girls and children from poverty-stricken families being hardest hit.

Children in these countries are also caught in a vicious cycle of risk: they face greater risks of being forced into child labour and, adolescent girls are especially at risk of gender-based violence, child marriage and teenage pregnancy, which increases the longer they are out of school. The same risks directly impact their ability to return to school at all. Combined with the sharp decrease in education spending, the COVID-19 outbreak could be a cruel blow for millions of children.

In many countries, including Canada, Save the Children has provided distance learning materials such as books and home learning kits to support learners during lockdown, working closely with governments and teachers to provide lessons and support through radio, television, phone, social media and messaging apps. In Canada, Save the Children is also working to address the urgent needs of marginalized Indigenous families by providing mental health and psychosocial support for children experiencing stress and anxiety.

Despite the efforts of governments and organizations, some 500 million children[iv] around the world have had no access to distance learning, and many of the poorest children may not have literate parents who can help them. Having lost out on months of learning, many children will struggle to catch up, raising the likelihood of drop out.

Save the Children warns that school closures have meant much more than education loss for many children – taking away safe places where children can play with friends, have meals and access health services, including services for their mental health. Teachers are often front-line responders and protectors for children who might suffer from abuse at home. With school closures, these safeguards fall away.

Bill Chambers continued:
“If we allow this education crisis to unfold, the impact on children’s futures will be long-lasting. The promise the world has made to ensure all children have access to quality education by 2030, will be set back by years.”

“Governments, including the Canadian government, should be putting the interests of children before the claims of creditors. Whether they live in a displacement camp in Syria, a conflict zone in Yemen, crowded urban area, or a remote rural village: all children have a right to learn, to develop, to build a bright future. Education is the basis for that, and we can’t afford to let COVID-19 get in the way.”

Save the Children urges governments and donors to ensure that out-of-school children have access to distance learning, and to protection services. Those who return to school should be able to do so safely and inclusively, with access to school meals and health services. Learning assessments and catch up classes must be adapted so that children can make up for their lost learning.

To ensure this happens, Save the Children is calling for increased funding of education, with $35 billion to be made available by the World Bank. National governments must make education a priority by producing and implementing COVID-19 education responses and recovery plans to ensure the most marginalized children are able to continue learning.

*Name changed for privacy reasons


Note to editors:

  • In response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact on education, Save the Children is providing distance learning materials, such as books and home learning kits, working closely with governments and teachers to provide lessons and support via radio, television, phone, social media and messaging apps.
  • Save the Children is making sure children are safe at home and not missing out on the meals or menstrual hygiene kits they would usually receive at school. And it is providing guidance for parents and other caregivers to ensure they have the right information about how to support their children’s learning and wellbeing at home.
  • Save the Children is also working with education authorities to help plan for the safe return to school, advocating with and on behalf of children to ensure decision-makers are aware of their concerns.
  • According to estimates from 2019 on Statistics Canada, there are 8,128,924 young people 19 and under in Canada: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1710000501

[i] See: http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/new-methodology-shows-258-million-children-adolescents-and-youth-are-out-school.pdf

[ii] We know that COVID-19 is likely to lead to an increase in the number of out-of-school children, either because children do not return to school when schools reopen, or they drop out because of the lost learning they have experienced whilst schools have been closed. We have calculated an index incorporating three critical vulnerabilities, which we believe are likely impact the likelihood of children dropping out of school: 1) Rate of children currently out of school (before COVID-19), 2) Equity gaps in out-of-school rates (wealth and gender), and 3) Learning outcomes.

[iii] Numbers as per July 1st 2020. See: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse

[iv] See: https://gemreportunesco.wordpress.com/2020/05/15/distance-learning-denied/#more-12982

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Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In Canada and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.