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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 equity and inclusion.

For individuals, education promotes employment, earnings, health, and poverty reduction. Globally, there is a 9% 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 advanced cognitive, socioemotional, technical and digital skills they need to succeed in today’s world. 

However, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the lives of young children, students, and youth. The disruption of societies and economies caused by the pandemic has aggravated the already existing global education crisis and impacted education in unprecedented ways.

Among its many dramatic disruptions, the pandemic has led to the worst crisis in education of the last century.  Globally, between February 2020 and February 2022, education systems were fully closed for in-person learning for 141 days on average. In South Asia and Latin America & the Caribbean, closures lasted 273 and 225 days, respectively.

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 57% before the pandemic – increased to an estimated 70% in 2022 given the long school closures and the wide digital divide that hindered the effectiveness of remote learning during school closures, putting the SDG 4  targets in jeopardy. Analysis has already revealed deep losses, with international reading scores declining from 2016 to 2021 by more than a year of schooling.  These losses may translate to a 0.68 percentage point in global GDP growth. 

Children and youth in most countries suffered major learning losses during the pandemic. Rigorous empirical evidence from various countries, including low-, middle-, and high-income contexts across regions, reveals very steep losses. School closures and ineffective remote learning caused students to miss out on learning and to also forget what they had learned: on average, for every 30 days of school closures, students lost about 32 days of learning.

The staggering effects of school closures reach beyond learning. This generation of children could lose a combined total of US$21 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value or the equivalent of 17% of today’s global GDP – a sharp rise from the 2021 estimate of a US$17 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.

Additionally, children’s mental health has been negatively affected, while risks of violence, child marriage and child labor are also increasing.  The situation is more dire for girls, who 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 have been put 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 results in the contraction of government budgets and strains on public education spending.

Youth have also suffered a loss in human capital in terms of both skills and jobs. High learning poverty hinders more advanced skill development, and youth enter the workforce lacking the skills needed to be productive, resilient, and adaptable. An estimated two-thirds of the world’s youth fail to achieve the equivalent of PISA minimum proficiency in language and math skills. Youth who suffer from high learning poverty achieve even worse rates of basic skills proficiency at the secondary level, which often prevents them from acquiring the higher-order, technical, and digital skills needed for the workplace, especially non-routine cognitive tasks that complement technology. Young men often further face underachievement in skills acquisition and young women face barriers to translating their skills into economic opportunities. 

Action is urgently needed now – business as usual will not suffice to heal the scars of the pandemic and will not accelerate progress enough to meet the ambitions of SDG 4. 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.

Last Updated: Oct 11, 2023


Slide Show 04/10/23

Ending Learning Poverty and Building Skills: Investing in Education from Early Childhood to Lifelong Learning

The World Bank is the largest external financier of education in the developing world. We support education programs in more than 100 countries and are committed to helping countries increase access to quality education at all levels, reduce Learning Poverty, and develop skills, by putting in place education systems that assure opportunities for all.
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