Education is a human right, a powerful driver of development, and one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty and improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability. It delivers large, consistent returns in terms of income, and is the most important factor to ensure equality of opportunities.
For individuals, education promotes employment, earnings, health, and poverty reduction. Globally, there is a 10% increase in hourly earnings for every extra year of schooling. For societies, it drives long-term economic growth, spurs innovation, strengthens institutions, and fosters social cohesion.
Developing countries have made tremendous progress in getting children into the classroom and more children worldwide are now in school. But learning is not guaranteed, as the 2018 World Development Report (WDR) stressed.
Making smart and effective investments in people’s education is critical for developing the human capital that will end extreme poverty. At the core of this strategy is the need to tackle the learning crisis, put an end to Learning Poverty, and help youth acquire the skills they need to succeed in today’s world.
However, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the lives of young children, students, and youth. The disruption of societies and economies caused by the pandemic is aggravating the already existing global education crisis and impacting education in unprecedented ways.
Among its many dramatic disruptions, the pandemic has led to the worst crisis in education of the last century. At the peak of school closures in April 2020, 94 percent of students – or 1.6 billion children – were out of school worldwide.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this global learning crisis was stark. The learning poverty indicator, created by the World Bank and UNESCO Institute of Statistics and launched in 2019, gives a simple but sobering measure of the magnitude of this learning crisis: the proportion of 10-year-old children that are unable to read and understand a short age-appropriate text.
In low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in Learning Poverty – already over 50 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, putting the Sustainable Development Goal 4 targets in jeopardy. School children have lost an estimated 2 trillion hours – and counting – of in-person instruction since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
The staggering effects of school closures reach beyond learning. This generation of children could lose a combined total of $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value – a sharp rise from the 2020 estimate of a $10 trillion loss.
COVID-19 created an inequality catastrophe. Almost all countries provided some form of remote education during school closures, but there was high inequality in access and uptake between and within countries. Children from disadvantaged households were less likely to benefit from remote learning than their peers, often due to a lack of electricity, connectivity, devices, and caregiver support. Girls, students with disabilities, and the youngest children also faced significant barriers to engaging in remote learning. Overall, at least a third of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million globally – were unable to access remote learning during school closures.
24 million additional students are at risk of not returning to the school system. Children’s mental health is deteriorating, while risks of violence, child marriage and child labor are increasing. The situation is more dire for girls, who are less likely to return to school after dropping out, and are more vulnerable to violence, child marriage, and becoming pregnant. Vulnerable groups such as children with disabilities, ethnic minorities, refugees, and displaced populations are also less likely to return to school post-crisis
School disruptions particularly affected the youngest children. Early childhood education was closed the longest in many countries, with limited or no support for remote learning.
In addition to learning losses, schooling disruptions have also exacerbated disparities in nutrition, health and stimulation, and access to essential social protection and psychosocial services. Millions more children are at risk of being pushed into child labor, early marriage, and of leaving school altogether.
Adding to these challenges is the negative impact of the unprecedented global economic contraction on family incomes, which increases the risk of school dropouts, and also results in the contraction of government budgets and strains on public education spending.
As a result, this generation of students, and especially the more disadvantaged, may never achieve their full education and earnings potential.
This is truly tragic, but we can avoid it. We are urging governments to implement ambitious and aggressive Learning Recovery Programs to get children back to school, recover lost learning, and accelerate progress by building better, more equitable and resilient education systems.
Yet despite additional funding needs, two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries have cut their public education budgets since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the joint World Bank – UNESCO Education Finance Watch (EFW). In comparison, only one-third of upper-middle and high-income countries have reduced their budgets. These budget cuts have been relatively small thus far, but there is a danger that future cuts will be larger, as the pandemic continues to take its economic toll, and fiscal positions worsen.
These differing trends imply a significant widening of the already large spending disparities seen between low- and high-income countries. According to EFW, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2018-19, high-income countries were spending annually the equivalent of US$8,501 for every child or youth’s education compared to US$48 in low-income countries. COVID-19 is only widening this huge per-capita education spending gap between rich and poor countries.
The education finance challenge is not only about mobilizing more resources for education, but also about improving effectiveness of the funding already allocated to the education budgets. Unfortunately, recent increases in public education spending are associated with only relatively small and disproportionate improvements in education outcomes.
National Governments and the international development community must invest more and invest better in education systems and strengthen the link between spending and learning and other human capital outcomes.
Last Updated: Apr 18, 2022