On the first International Day of Education: Action for all

Fortunately, you can read this. Millions cannot. Undeniably, the numbers are devastating: 262 million children and youth are out of school; 617 million are unable to read and do basic mathematics even when in school; and 750 million adults lack foundational literacy skills, resulting in lower earning power and difficulty in negotiating 21st century life.

Without education, children remain trapped in poverty, poor health and hardship. How will these children reach their full potential and contribute to the prosperity and stability of their families, communities and economies?

Our work at UNICEF is predicated on the inalienable right of every child to a quality education and learning opportunities from early childhood to adolescence. Nevertheless, various factors – including disability, economic circumstances, gender, geographic location, poor quality teaching, disruption from conflicts and other shocks – prevent millions of children from learning.

Today we come together — as governments, the United Nations, the private sector, civil society and youth organizations — to strengthen collective action in achieving global education goals, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For our commitments to be effective, we must target those children who are being left behind, tailor our education programmes to meet their diverse needs, and invest in what we know succeeds.

A small girl wearing a red dress sits on the floor of a candle-lit room and uses a piece of chalk to write on a slate board.
© UN072736/Bangladesh/2017/LatifSadia 5, studies at her home. She goes to the Brac Pre School at Banshdoho village of Satkhira Sadar Upazilla of Satkhira district. The school is run under the Education Equity for Out of School Children Project (EEOSCP) supported by UNICEF.

The early years matter

As efforts accelerate towards realising Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, UNICEF is working to expand education systems to capture those children most at risk of being out of school or dropping out.

One of our focus areas is on early learning, which levels the playing field for marginalized children and provides the boost they need to succeed in school and reach their developmental potential. While net enrolment rates for pre-primary education have increased for all regions and income groups, low income countries – where 85 per cent of children are not accessing preschool – continue to lag far behind. Children from poor families, those in remote rural areas, children who speak minority languages, children with disabilities, and those affected by emergencies often cannot afford pre-primary education services and are therefore missing out.

A big part of the problem is a lack of investment by governments and donors. Current spending on pre-primary education represents just 11 per cent of resources needed each year between now and 2030 by low income countries to meet the pre-primary education target — the equivalent for lower middle income countries is 27 per cent. Ensuring that children master the basics of literacy and numeracy during the early years is essential to reduce drop outs and increase learning outcomes later in life. UNICEF will continue to prioritise the needs of the most disadvantaged young children, so that they start school at the right age and are prepared to learn, with the support of their parents and communities.

Young children in school uniforms stand and read aloud in a classroom.
© UNICEF/UN0225225/Brown;Students stand up and read in class at Russey Chroy Primary School in Sa’ang district, Kandal province, Cambodia.

Promoting inclusive education systems

The inclusion of children with disabilities is crucial to the realisation of international education goals and to ensure that no one is left behind. These girls and boys have long remained invisible, hidden and forgotten. Up to 35 per cent of all out-of-school children are those with disabilities. Moreover, almost 50 per cent of children with disabilities are out of school, compared with only 13 per cent for children without disabilities, demonstrating that disability is one of the gravest barriers to education.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “persons with disabilities are… more likely to be out of school, less likely to complete primary or secondary education, and less likely to possess basic literacy skills.” Children who are disabled are more likely to be poor and remain poor throughout their lives due to lack of education and job opportunities.

Promoting inclusive education – as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – with all children in the same classrooms in the same schools, is the most effective way to provide all children with an education. The adoption of inclusive education practices is essential to achieve universal school enrolment, and inclusive education systems benefit the learning of all children, not just those with disabilities.

A young boy in a classroom., hunched over a desk writing.
© UNICEF/UNI28068/LeMoyne;A Karamojong girl takes notes in class at Naitakwaé Primary School in Naitakwaé Town in the north-eastern Moroto District.

What can we do to achieve SDG 4?

It is estimated that an increase in annual spending on education from $1.2 trillion today to $3 trillion by 2030 will be required to achieve SDG 4. In order to expand education systems and achieve SDG 4, governments should allocate 20 per cent of national budgets to education. In addition, they must strengthen their state education systems in terms of equity and efficiency, prioritizing the early years and the most marginalized.

There is urgent need for donors to invest more in education, starting at the pre-primary level. This will take robust political commitment, strengthened partnerships, adequate funding and human capacity, and capitalization of new technologies and innovations. Let’s use today to step up action so that every boy and girl can reap education’s vital and transformative benefits.

On this day, the very first International Day of Education, we celebrate the fundamental role of education for peace and development worldwide. The day highlights the global community’s profound commitment to inclusive, equitable and quality education for all.


Jo Bourne is Associate Director of Education, UNICEF.

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