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Despite slight drop, number of children missing out on school remains high, UN agency reports

Displaced children at a camp near  Tawilla, Darfur.
UNAMID/Sojoud Elgarrai
Displaced children at a camp near Tawilla, Darfur.

Despite slight drop, number of children missing out on school remains high, UN agency reports

New figures today from the United Nations educational agency show that the number of children out of school dipped slightly last year over 2011.

Fifty-seven million children were out of school in 2011, according to the UN Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, down just two million from the previous year.

The agency also points out that the challenge of getting more children into school is being compounded by the fact that aid to basic education decreased for the first time in more than a decade.

“We are at a critical juncture,” said the Director-General of the UN Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova. “Now is not the time for aid donors to back out.”

She stressed that the world must move beyond simply helping children enter school to ensuring that they actually learn the basics literacy and numeracy skills when they are there.

UNESCO notes that at least one out of every four children that do enrol stay in school – a figure that has not changed since 2000. About 137 million children began primary school in 2011 but at least 34 million are likely to drop out before reaching the last grade.

The figure drops to one out of three students in Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and West Asia, which have the highest rate of early school dropout.

“Our twin challenge is to get every child in school by understanding and acting on the multiple causes of exclusion, and to ensure they learn with qualified teachers in healthy and safe environments,” Ms. Bokova said.

Aid to basic education declined by six per cent between 2010 and 2011, according to new analysis from the Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Six of the top education donors that year cut funding, among them Canada, the Netherlands and the World Bank (IDA), leaving the United Kingdom as the largest bilateral donor to basic education.

In addition, the report calls for donors to prioritize countries and regions most in need. Only $1.9 billion was allocated to low income countries in 2011, according to UNESCO, a reduction of nine per cent and significantly short of the $26 billion needed to fill the finance gap for basic education.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa account for more than half of all out-of-school children and have the highest out-of-school rate, the Institute for Statistics reported. Aid to Nigeria, for example, the country that is home to the largest number of out of school children in the world, dropped by more than a quarter from 2010 to 2011.

More than 20 per cent of African children have never attended primary school or have left school without completing primary education. By contrast, countries in South and West Asia, which also have high drop-out rates, have made considerable gains over the past two decades, reducing the number of out-of-school children by two-thirds from 38 million in 1999 to 12 million in 2011.

“Children in poor, remote areas, those affected by conflict, or those belonging to ethnic, racial and linguistic minorities are denied an opportunity for schooling,” UNESCO said in a news release.

In addition, children from poor households are three times as likely to be out of school as children from rich households. Access to education is particularly difficult for girls from poor households in rural areas.

The release of the figures comes ahead of tomorrow’s high-level discussions in New York in support of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Global Education First Initiative and Mr. Ban’s Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown, to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship by the end of 2015.

In 2000, Governments meeting in Dakar set six education goals to be met by 2015. One of these, Universal Primary Education, was also set as one of the eight anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are to be achieved by the same date.

To accelerate progress towards universal education, Mr. Ban launched last September his Global Education First Initiative. UNESCO hosts its Secretariat.