Education represents the hopes and dreams of children and youth around the world to reach their full potential and contribute to healthy and sustainable societies. Lack of education severely limits their economic, social and political opportunities in adulthood. Hence, the SDG Target 4.1 to “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes” by 2030. However, the number of out-of-school children (OOSC) pose a huge challenge to achieving this target. If current trends continue, we are off-track to deliver on this commitment, and one in six children aged 6-17 years will remain excluded.
According to a UNESCO Institute of Statistics Factsheet released just before the COVID-19 pandemic, over 258 million children and youth were out of school. More than one-third of the OOSC (98 million) live in sub-Saharan Africa while about 30 million are estimated to be in South Asia. On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures affecting more than 168 million children globally. Despite the use of remote teaching and learning options, limited ICT infrastructure and low access have left millions of poor and rural children excluded.
A multitude of intersecting factors such as poverty, child labour, discrimination, child marriage, disability, language barriers, social norms, insufficient school infrastructure and staffing, natural disasters, and armed conflicts limit children’s participation in education. The pandemic exacerbated these challenges and caught education systems unprepared resulting in serious adverse consequences for children’s education.
Since its creation in 2010, The Global OOSC Initiative has supported countries to study and analyse OOSC including those who are at risk of dropping out to identify, promote and implement sound policies that address exclusion. Several innovative and promising interventions have been tried out although with limited reach and scale to include all categories of OOSC. For example, the Accelerated Education Evidence Review in Africa highlights Accelerated Education Programs (AEP) as one of the key innovations for OOSC. They are flexible, age-appropriate, and run in an accelerated time frame which suits the needs of those who missed out or had their education interrupted by poverty, marginalization, conflict, or crisis.
Educational campaigns to inform and advocate are found useful especially in contexts where importance and longer-term benefits of education are less understood by parents and communities. They can be used to focus on community-level and cross-sectoral stakeholder engagement, and to address socio-cultural practices and norms that keep children out of school. The Global Education Coalition’s #LearningNeverStops campaign to ensure continuity of learning for girls offers some useful resources for stakeholder engagement.
For children who are at-risk of dropping out, targeted after-school programs, peer-peer learning, working with parents to enhance their engagement with children’s education, creating positive school climate to address social-exclusion and discriminatory practices are some strategies. Mentoring relationships and socio-emotional learning to protect or promote competencies for psychosocial well-being contribute to positive re-engagement outcomes (a detailed discussion can be found here).
Although there are several innovations and interventions ongoing, these tend to be peripheral than mainstream benefitting only small pockets, showing promise but requiring more knowledge and evidence on how, why, and under what circumstances they work or do not work. More work needs to be done to understand their effectiveness, sustainability, and scalability.
It is against this backdrop that the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) recently launched four research projects that address OOSC. These projects are implemented by a consortia of non-government organizations, and academic and research institutions. The projects include work in 15 GPE-partner countries spread across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These projects focus on innovative and promising education interventions for OOSC from rural and marginalized communities that will allow them to transition to formal education or employment.
The Back2School project aims to generate evidence in support of scaling an accelerated learning program to facilitate the re-integration of out-of-school rural girls into the mainstream education system in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. The project will refine the Complementary Basic Education for Tanzania (COBET) model by generating knowledge on effective approaches to adapt, scale and promote uptake in the project countries. COBET is an AEP with a specially designed curriculum to support OOSC to catch up and attain age-appropriate numeracy, literacy, and life skills, and eventually integrate them into the formal education system.
A comparative study of AEP models that focus on access to education for girls is investigating the efficiency, effectiveness, and scalability of models in rural, fragile and hard- to-reach areas in Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. It will study models such as the Strategic Approaches to Girls Education being implemented in poverty-stricken districts in Northern Ghana; Addressing Education in Northeast Nigeria which provides alternative education to children and youth in internally displaced communities to complete a condensed programs using formal school curriculum and facilitate their transition to formal school; and the Girls’ Circle project to tackle inequalities girls face through girls’ empowerment strategies such as girls’ clubs, radio drama and talk shows with literacy, numeracy and life skills education including support for small businesses for groups of girls.
Another project in West Africa aims to improve options to integrate OOSC into school and offer alternative educational opportunities to those who will not return. The project will employ proven non-formal education practices and innovations including pathways for scaling up the model in six countries.
In South Asia, a project in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal will study the effectiveness and scalability of programs for children in urban slums, rural and remote locations, and children with disabilities who are out of school and at risk of dropping out.
The disadvantages faced by OOSC are complex and measures to address these barriers will require addressing inequities linked to factors such as poverty, gender, ethnicity, language, geographic location. Ensuring no child is excluded from education will require inclusive policies and innovative approaches. Reliance on an existing mainstream approach to education alone will only mean that the global target of quality education for all by 2030 is forever elusive and remains yet another broken promise.