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Education and


Key message

An equitable education system is the foundation for a peaceful, productive and fair society.

Prioritising investment in education for those most often excluded — those who are poor, disabled, female, rural, nomadic, from minority ethnic groups, and living in conflict — provides the greatest social and economic returns.
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Key challenges
  • The benefits of education for all will not be fully realised without quality education for all. Great inequities exist in learning and the quality of education provided — even for children with a primary education — with learning outcomes often the lowest for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In low- and middle-income countries, only 18 of the poorest youth complete secondary school for every 100 of the richest youth. In at least 20 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, hardly any poor rural young women complete secondary school.
    (GEM, 2020)  (UNICEF, 2015)
  • Providing equitable education opportunities starts with more equitable education financing. Governments often spend the least on the children most often excluded from education. In Malawi, the most educated 10% consume 130 times the amount of public education funds than the bottom 10%.
    (UNICEF, 2015)
  • Progressive education policies are needed to proactively address systemic learning inequality. Across 30 countries, children from the poorest quintile of households were four times more likely to be out of school compared with those from the wealthiest households (40% versus 10%).
    (UIS, 2012)
  • Great disparities in education exist between the rich and the poor, and those living in rural and urban areas. A 34% gap in attendance rates for children ages 3-5 exists between the richest and poorest quintiles, and a 16% gap between urban and rural areas according to a study of 61 low- and middle-income countries.
    (GEM, 2021)
  • Even when children are in school, many are not learning, with the poorest and most marginalised bearing the brunt of the learning crisis. Globally, 617 million children are unable to meet minimum proficiency in maths and reading, though a full two-thirds are in school.
    (UNICEF, 2022)
  • Differences in access to remote learning opportunities during the pandemic were extreme. Just 6% of students in Africa would have been able to attend classes online, whereas online platforms were used in 96% of high-income countries.
    (UNESCO et al., 2021)  (GEM, 2021)
  • Inequities present during COVID-19 are being carried over to pandemic recovery. Incentives to help girls or those from poor families return to school such as cash, food, transport or fee waivers, are being provided by just one in four countries.
    (UNESCO et al., 2021)
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Make the case
  • Prioritising education for the most marginalised provides the highest returns. Financing primary and early childhood education, and the education of the poorest, the disabled, and those with social disadvantages, is the quickest route to achieving equity, with the greatest potential social dividends.
    (Education Commission, 2016)
  • Investments in early childhood education promote equity. Creating a level playing field from the beginning improves the chances for a fair start in life, reaping benefits to nutrition and health, cognitive development, and school achievement.
    (GBC-Education, 2018)  (Black & Dewey, 2014)  (Nonoyama-Tarumi et al., 2009)
  • Investing in the most disadvantaged generates the greatest impact. In Ghana, building nurseries for the poorest children in the poorest districts had an impact on primary completion four times that of providing nurseries to the general population.
    (UNICEF, 2016)
  • Providing equitable education is an important driver of national economic growth. More equal access to education reduces income inequality and poverty, offering all segments of society more equal economic opportunities. If education inequality in sub-Saharan Africa had been halved, the annual per capita growth rate would have increased nearly 50% over a five-year period.
    (EFA GMR, 2013)
  • A marginal increase in education has transformative effects on inequality. One additional year of education is associated with a 1.4% decrease in income inequality. Societies with high income equality are able to reduce poverty 75% faster.
    (Patrinos & Psacharopoulos, 2013)
  • Education reduces inequality. Using data for 114 countries from 1985 to 2005, one extra year of education is associated with a Gini coefficient reduction of 1.4 per cent.
    (UNICEF, 2015)
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Key opinions
2020 Angel Gurria 1
Angel Gurría
OECD Secretary-General
The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the resilience of our education systems, and risks undermining global efforts to achieve SDG4. It has also exposed deeply entrenched inequalities in education, from the technology required to access online education and the supportive environments needed to focus on learning, to our challenge to attract the best teachers to the most demanding schools. As we navigate the crisis, and strive to build back better, we must not forget that our schools today will shape our society tomorrow. Let’s ensure every learner is equipped with the knowledge, tools and support needed to reach their full potential!
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Guy Ryder
Guy Ryder
ILO Director General
Education and training are the keys to unlock opportunities for women and men to gain employment, launch businesses and create better lives for themselves and their families. As we work to build a better and more resilient future after the COVID-19 pandemic, we must ensure quality education systems that are accessible to all.
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Key talking points
  • Education can create more equitable societies, if investments provide opportunities to the poorest and most marginalised.
  • Education has a tremendous power to equalise the playing field early in life and helps reduce inequalities between income groups and for minority populations.
  • The Education Commission recommended that when balancing spending across levels of education and population groups, decision-makers should prioritise spending for equity and public returns.
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