12 January 2021 - Global

The world’s poorest children can safely go back to school if leaders invest $370 per student

Fifteen-year-old Saada* from Hodeidah, Yemen, has been displaced as result of the country’s ongoing conflict. The temporary learning space in the displacement camp where she now lives was closed until October last year due to the coronavirus outbreak. While it is now open, it operates with a reduced curriculum. Students attend in shift patterns to allow for social distancing. More content available here.

Fears of a lost generation in the world’s poorest countries can be quashed by investing $50 billion to ensure 136 million children can return to school safely, Save the Children said today.

Analysis published today by the child rights organisation found that it will cost an average of $370 per child to safely open schools again and get learning back on track in 59 of the world’s poorest countries.

These new figures follow research from Save the Children last year, which suggested that almost 10 million children may never return to school - while noting that this is likely to be a significant underestimate.

“Without education, we would not have the success of the COVID-19 vaccines and the prospect of a safer world. Children who are currently out of school are our future doctors, scientists, truck drivers, and plumbers,” said Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children. “If 2020 was the year of finding the vaccine, 2021 needs to be the year of investing in children’s future.” 

As many countries cannot afford the cost, particularly as governments prioritise healthcare to tackle the second wave of the virus, international donors need to work with national governments to fully fund a plan to safely return all children back to school. The priority should be the poorest and most marginalised like girls, refugees and displaced children and children with disabilities, the organisation said.

Save the Children research has found that refugees are dropping out of school at a higher rate than other children due to economic hardship and because refugees are being left out of national education responses. In a recent survey of Al Hol, Roj and Areesha camps in North-East Syria, where at least 5,500 children have stopped going to school, 79% of teachers said this was due to pressure to work in order to support their families financially.

Even before the pandemic, UNHCR estimated that in the countries where they had rigorous enough data, almost half of school-age refugee students were out of school.

As well as missing out on an education, children out of school are also vulnerable to child labour, child marriage and other forms of abuse. As a result of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, Save the Children warned of a dramatic surge in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, with up to an additional 2.5 million girls at risk of child marriage over five years and adolescent pregnancies expected to rise by up to one million in 2020.

In Uganda despite some schools having re-opened, more than 13 million children remain out of school since the end of March last year, including 600,000 refugee children. In Nwoya district in northern Uganda, figures from the police and Ministry of Health (HMIS) show that cases of both teenage pregnancies and child marriage doubled, and rates of child labour tripled between April and June last year, while children were out of school. Due to difficulties in reporting these issues, the real picture is likely to be far more serious.

Jonathan*, a 15 year old South Sudanese refugee living in a camp in east Uganda, said he misses going to school and worries for his friends. ‘Things have really changed since March last year. What I’m now worrying about is that some of our friends who are girls are now getting pregnant because of the school closures. Some are dropping out of school because they have now got married. And some of the boys are going to work for other people, on their farms or in the market. Some of them have been doing heavy work and there is no food to eat – so at the end of the month they find they are becoming very thin and have health problems.’

Save the Children urges governments and donors to take five urgent steps to ensure that children who were in school prior to COVID-19 closures can safely return:

  1. Financial support for the world’s poorest families, so they can send their children to school and keep them healthy;
  2. Catch-up classes for students who re-enter the formal education system;
  3. Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools, to make them COVID-19 safe for students, teachers and their families;
  4. National back to school communications campaigns to inform communities that it is safe for children to return;
  5. Effective training for teachers to keep everyone safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inger Ashing continued: ‘‘The longer children are out of school, the less likely it is they will return, as children from poorer families run an increased risk of being put to work or married off.

‘Last year pushed us into a healthcare and economic crisis, and into the biggest education emergency we’ve ever seen. It is critical that international donors and national governments now prioritise the education of millions of children across the globe.’’

Notes to editors

  • Save the Children has calculated that it will cost $370 per head for these measures to be implemented for children across the 59 countries that are eligible for international development assistance.
  • Save the Children is not advising when schools should re-open. That is for national governments to decide.
  • Save the Children calculates that more than 13 million children have been out of school in Uganda since March. This figure comes from research from August 2020 which found that 15 million children were out of school at that time, and calculates that approximately 1.2 million children returned to school in October.
  • The figures from Nwoya district in Uganda are from the police and Ministry of Health between April and June last year, when children were out of school.
  • In response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact on education, Save the Children is providing distance learning materials, such as books and home learning kits, working closely with governments and teachers to provide lessons and support via radio, television, phone, social media and messaging apps.
  • Save the Children is making sure children are safe at home and not missing out on the meals or menstrual hygiene kits they would usually receive at school. And it is providing guidance for parents and other caregivers to ensure they have the right information about how to support their children’s learning and wellbeing at home.
  • Save the Children is also working with education authorities to help plan for the safe return to school, advocating with and on behalf of children to ensure decision-makers are aware of their concerns.

Read our Save Our Education Now report which details an emergency COVID-19 education plan to get the poorest and most marginalised children safely back to school and learning.

We have spokespeople available for interview, including Inger Ashing, regional spokespeople and education specialists who wrote the report. For interview requests please either contact me (Emily.wight@savethechildren.org) or out of hours press office (media@savethechildren.org.uk / +44 7831 650 409)

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