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World leaders must address ‘shameful’ disparities in education spending: UN children’s agency

The study, “Addressing the learning crisis: an urgent need to better finance education for the poorest children”, was published on Monday to coincide with a meeting of education ministers, gathered at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland: the agency urged world leaders to address ‘shameful’ disparities in public education spending.

Countries everywhere are failing the world’s poorest children and, in doing so, failing themselves. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore

Excluding the poorest children from education, says the report, perpetuates poverty and is a key driver of the global learning crisis. Obstacles they face include discrimination due to gender, disability, ethnic origin, and poor infrastructure.

Those who do make it to school may then find themselves faced with large class sizes, poorly trained teachers,a  lack of education materials and poor school infrastructure. This, says UNICEF, has an adverse impact on attendance, enrolment and learning. 

“Countries everywhere are failing the world’s poorest children and, in doing so, failing themselves,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “As long as public education spending is disproportionately skewed towards children from the richest households, the poorest will have little hope of escaping poverty”. 

A ‘crippling learning crisis’ for poorer children

Kres village, Cambodia. 11-year old Loul Bopha makes the short walk from her home to the school, by © UNICEF/Antoine Raab

The lack of resources available for the poorest children, says the report, is exacerbating a crippling learning crisis, as schools fail to provide quality education for their students. According to the World Bank, more than half of children living in low- and middle-income countries cannot read or understand a simple story by the end of primary school. 

10 countries across Africa account for the highest disparities in education spending: in Guinea and the Central African Republic – countries with some of the world’s highest rates of out-of-school children – the richest children benefit from nine and six times, respectively, the amount of public education funds than the poorest children. 

Only five countries included in the study (which looked at 42 countries with available data) ensure that education is funded equally between the richest and poorest households: Barbados, Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. 

The paper calls for all countries to follow this example, prioritize public funding for lower levels of education, and provide at least one year of universal pre-primary education for every child. 

“We are at a critical juncture” said Ms. Fore. “If we invest wisely and equitably in children’s education, we have the best possible chance of lifting children out of poverty by empowering them with the skills they need to access opportunities, and create new ones for themselves”.  

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