Josephine Bourne: Who Is Out of School and Why?

Designing an Effective Training Program August 23, 2013

There are 57 million children out of school – over half will go to school at some point. Approximately 28 million children will have no access to school. But the rest – the majority by a small margin, have had, or are likely to have some exposure to schooling. They are the children who start late or drop out early. Add to that the numbers of children who attend irregularly, the low achievers, those in the classroom but marginalised by language or ethnicity, and the numbers of children who are effectively excluded from education runs to the hundreds of millions.

It is critical to understand who is out of school and why they are out of school, in any given country or region. Deeply entrenched structural inequalities are part of what keeps children out of school. Understanding these disparities helps us not only to develop strategies for those children, but to develop approaches to those at the highest risk of being excluded from school. 

Business as usual will not reach the last 10%. Progress is slowing down, and the profile of who is out of school is changing. Global statistics give us some clues as to who is likely to be out of school – being a poor, rural girl with an uneducated mother significantly diminishes your chances of going to school. Living in a fragile or conflict-affected state or having a disability accounts for large numbers of out-of-school children. But the actual profile of out-of-school children differs dramatically from country to country, within and between regions. Developing ways to reduce out-of-school children cannot rely on global trends. Strategies must be based on the actual bottlenecks, the multiple disadvantages and social exclusion these children face and are often hidden.

The Out of School Children’s Initiative (OOSCI) works with governments to define how many children are out of school, and who they are. UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute of Statistics launched the Out-of-School Initiative three years ago. With support from the Global Partnership for Education, working in collaboration with the World Bank, the initiative will be further expanded in the next three years. Put briefly, this is an approach that enables us to work with countries to identify who is out of school,where they live, why they are out of school and what context-specific strategies will help these children get into school.  The first stage of this work has already been carried out in 26 countries, and the second stage is underway. These profiles are then used to identify most critical changes that would get more children into school and keep them there.

Consequently, we are already seeing better, more reliable data guiding policy and program decisions. Sharp indicators not only play a critical role in exposing weaknesses in access and quality but they also points to new directions for investment. Good indicators can also map trends and show policymakers how and where to focus attention. 

We are seeing results. For example, in Ghana, the big problem is with children in the poor and sparsely-populated north, who are four times more likely to be out of school than their peers who live in more affluent regions. UNICEF’s response has included a sophisticated equity-based model called Simulation for Equity in Education showing that relatively small changes in financing would have a massive impact on enrolment and retention. It was estimated that cheaper in-service training for teachers in marginalized areas in Ghana could lead to 87,000 additional children passing the national learning exam, compared to only 61,000 passing the exam after more expensive pre-service training. 

In Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the major problems is grade repetition.  Elementary students and adolescents forced to repeat grades are much more likely to drop out. UNICEF is working with partners to advocate for a policy of automatic promotion, including scaling up successful campaigns to secure reading skills at the right age. For example, between 2006 and 2009 the State of Ceara in Brazil saw a 56% drop in illiteracy rates of 8 year olds, following the introduction of ‘Literacy at the Right Age’ public policy, with support from UNICEF. These approaches will be scaled up, with a focus on areas with high levels of disadvantaged children.  

Similarly, in Western and Central Africa, overage enrolment is leading to high rates of drop out, so UNICEF will be looking at options to support enrolling children at the right age, building on efforts to improve birth reporting. In Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, children with disability and Roma children were identified as being particularly disadvantaged, in terms of access and learning achievement. UNICEF will convene a regional conference later in 2013 to focus on the inclusion of all children in quality education, with a particular focus on identifying next steps in improving access to education, and improving the learning achievement of excluded children.  

OOSCI will play a vital role in addressing priority objectives around equity and learning.  The post 2015 dialogue on education repeatedly stresses equity and learning as the two areas left behind in the wake of Universal Primary Education.  Global efforts to improve the measurement of learning, such as the Learning Metrics Taskforce, have the potential to help us shift away from the use of proxy indicators as a measure of quality, and define and measure – at a national level – a broad and forward looking learning agenda. But the real trick will be map this effort to improved, country specific data and knowledge on who is out of school and why. Improving the learning opportunities and achievement of those most excluded from education should be centre stage, with education systems that support this, and policy makers who feel equipped and accountable for this. The development of new metrics, the increased availability of better, and more nuanced data, and the potential of technology to give policy makers fast access to what is happening on the ground will open up opportunities to accelerate progress in both equity and learning. Putting the last child first means knowing who the last child is  – using tools like OOSCI – and supporting him or her to reach their full potential.