Deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could force at least 9.7 million children – more than the entire child population of Australia – out of school forever by the end of this year, and millions more will fall behind.
In the ‘Save Our Education’ report launched today, Save the Children warns that, as the impacts of the global recession triggered by Covid-19 hits families, many children may be forced out of school and into labour.
Save the Children is calling for governments, including Australia, to respond to this global education emergency by urgently investing in education as schools begin to reopen around the world after months of lockdown.
Save the Children Australia Humanitarian Director Archie Law said:
“We’ve seen first-hand the impact of this pandemic on vulnerable children – in Australia, the Pacific and around the world. Globally, 10 million children may never return to school, reversing decades of development progress, which would be an absolute travesty.
“It is vital that as Australia emerges from the pandemic, we see greater support for our regional neighbours and beyond to ensure all children are able to access education – whether physically or via remote learning.
“At it’s peak we saw 1.6 billion children out of school and now there are still more than a billion kids missing out on education. We cannot allow COVID-19 to push millions of children out of school forever, limiting their future prospects. Australia has a role to play and it, like other nations, must step up.”
The child rights agency is also urging commercial creditors to suspend debt repayments by low-income countries – a move that could free up AUD$20 billion for investment in education.
“We must not allow the resources that are so urgently needed in the Pacific region and beyond, to be diverted into debt repayments. Keeping children in education must be of the highest priority – their entire futures depend on it,” Mr Law said.
The Save Our Education Report reveals the devastating effects COVID-19 is set to have on investment in learning. In a mid-range budget scenario, the agency estimates that the recession will leave a shortfall of AUD $111 billion in education spending in some of the poorest countries in the world over the next 18 months. In a worst-case scenario, under which governments shift resources from education to other COVID-19 response areas, that figure could climb to an astonishing $276 billion by the end of 2021.
Aisha*, 15, from Ethiopia, is among the one billion children currently out of school:
“Three months ago, things were very good for me. I was enjoying school in grade six. When we were in school, we used to play with our friends and learn. The school also used to provide us with a meal every day. Now after this virus, I can’t go to school, and I can’t see my friends. I miss my school and my friends so much.
“It has been nearly three months since schools were closed and like many of the children here, I spend most of my time looking after the livestock and I sometimes help my mother with household chores like cleaning and cooking.”
The report’s Vulnerability Index shows that in 12 countries, mainly in West and Central Africa but also including Yemen and Afghanistan, children are at extremely high risk of not returning to school after the lockdowns lift – especially girls.
Many of these countries already have high out of school rates and a sharp divide in school attendance along wealth and gender lines. These factors are likely to be exacerbated by school closures, with girls and children from poverty-stricken families being hardest hit.
Save the Children warns that school closures have meant much more than education loss for many children – taking away safe places where children can play, have meals and access health services, including mental health. Teachers are often front-line responders and protectors for children who might suffer from abuse at home. With school closures, these safeguards fall away.
Save the Children is urging donors including Australia to ensure out-of-school children have access to distance learning and protection services. Those who return to school should be able to do so in a safe and inclusive way, with access to school meals and health services. Learning assessments and catch up classes must be adapted so that children can make up for their lost learning.
To ensure this happens, Save the Children is calling for increased funding of education globally, with AUD $50.4 billion to be made available by the World Bank.
*Name changed for privacy reasons