London — Deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could force at least 9.7 million children out of school forever by the end of this year, with millions more falling behind in learning, Save the Children warns in a new report launched today.
Girls are likely to be much worse affected than boys, with many forced into early marriage. As the impacts of the recession triggered by Covid-19 hits families, many children may be forced out of school and into labour markets.
In its report, Save the Children is calling for governments and donors to respond to this global education emergency by urgently investing in education as schools begin to reopen after months of lockdown.
The agency is also urging commercial creditors to suspend debt repayments by low-income countries - a move that could free up $14bn for investment in education.
"It would be unconscionable to allow resources that are so desperately needed to keep alive the hope that comes with education to be diverted into debt repayments," said Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK. The agency calls for governments to use their budgets to ensure children have access to distance learning whilst lockdown measures remain; and to support children who have fallen behind.
The Save Our Education report reveals the devastating effects the COVID-19 outbreak is set to have on learning. In a mid-range budget scenario, the agency estimates that the recession will leave a shortfall of $77 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 $192 billion by the end of 2021.
The impending budget crunch comes after lockdown measures saw a peak of 1.6 billion children out of school, globally.
Mr Watkins said: "Around 10 million children may never return to school - this is an unprecedented education emergency and governments must urgently invest in learning. Instead we are at risk of unparalleled budget cuts which will see existing inequality explode between the rich and the poor, and between boys and girls. We know the poorest, most marginalised children who were already the furthest behind have suffered the greatest loss, with no access to distance learning - or any kind of education - for half an academic year."
Before the outbreak, 258 million children and adolescents[i] were already out of school. A Vulnerability Index in the report[ii] 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.
In another 28 countries children are at moderate or high risk of not going back to school and of the longer-term effects of widening inequalities. In total, Save the Children estimates that some 9.7 million children could be forced out of school by the end of this year.
Currently, more than 1 billion children[iii] are out of school due to the global pandemic. Aisha*, 15, from Ethiopia is one of them:
"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."
Many of the top-12 countries in the report's index 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.
Children in these countries are also caught in a vicious cycle of risk: they face greater risks of being forced into child labour and, adolescent girls are especially at risk of gender-based violence, child marriage and teenage pregnancy, which increases the longer they are out of school. The same risks directly impact their ability to return to school at all. Combined with the sharp decrease of education spending, the COVID-19 outbreak could be a cruel blow for millions of children.
In many countries, Save the Children has provided distance learning materials such as books and home learning kits to support learners during lockdown, working closely with governments and teachers to provide lessons and support through radio, television, phone, social media and messaging apps.
Despite the efforts of governments and organisations, some 500 million children[iv] had no access to distance learning, and many of the poorest children may not have literate parents who can help them. Having lost out on months of learning, many children will struggle to catch up, raising the likelihood of drop out.
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 with friends, have meals and access health services, including services for their 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 calling for an increased funding of education and has identified the need for the UK Government to play a critical role in bringing key global actors together, with $35 billion to be made available by the World Bank. Kevin Watkins continued:
"Boris Johnson's commitment to girls' education provides an opportunity for the UK to lead in developing and implementing a global COVID-19 education plan. Hosting the G7 in 2021 is an important chance to unite world leaders behind this plan to ensure the most marginalised children are able to continue learning."
*Name changed for privacy reasons