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Universal neglect: 120 million kids are still not going to school

Liberian girls in a school outside Monrovia. (Credit: UN/Christopher Herwig)

The global push for universal primary education increased school enrollment in the past decade, but there are still more than 120 million young people who are not going to school. This major gap has created an “education deficit,” according to Human Rights Watch. The failure lies at the feet of the governments that are failing to live up to their role in ensuring all children go to school.

“Governments should fulfill their human rights obligations and display the political will to eliminate barriers and tackle discrimination in education,” blogged Elin Martinez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But they should also be more accountable. If they are serious about ‘quality education for all,’ they should put strict guidelines in place and make sure school officials follow them properly and, at the school level, invest the necessary resources.”

Problems do not stop at the children out of school. There are many uncounted boys and girls who can’t access education because of school fees, lack of resources for students with disabilities and other obstacles that harm the ability to learn, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. It places pressure on leaders as they meet in Norway to take steps that seek to improve access to quality education.

Conflict alone keeps about 29 million children out of school. In countries that are relatively stable, governments fail to deliver quality education by not preventing children from dropping out early, inadequately monitoring schools and allowing school officials to hold the power to determine whether kids can or cannot attend class, says the report.

Donors can provide technical and financial support to countries in achieving their goals. However, there is a negative outcome to the push for universal access primary education – resources are not making it to secondary and tertiary education. As a result, some 34 million girls are absent from secondary school. That leaves those girls at higher risk of early marriage or pregnancy.

“My last year of school was the first semester of the first year of junior high. I really wanted to continue studying, but I really didn’t have the money,” said Endah, who dropped out of school in Indonesia to work as a child domestic worker at age 15, in an interview with Human Rights Watch. “The school fee was 15,000 rupiah ($1.10) per month. But what I really couldn’t afford was the ‘building fee’ and the uniform. It was 500,000 rupiah ($37) …. Then each semester we had to buy books.”

The requirement of school fees is a global problem. In Kenya, primary education is provided across the country for free, claims the government. Yet each term students pay for their mandatory uniforms and pay fees to cover the cost of food, books and other services. Children are sent home to collect unpaid fees and kept out of the classroom until the debt is paid. School administrators arbitrarily work out deals and determine which students to keep out of school if fees are owed.

Then there are the estimated 93 million children living with moderate or severe disabilities. Schools in many low- and middle-income countries do not have the necessary resources to support children. Entrances may not have ramps for children using wheelchairs or additional learning assistance for students with dyslexia.

The new set of global goals adopted late last year included updated targets regarding education. Governments agreed to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030, as a part of the Sustainable Development Goals. At the current rate, that is not going to happen. And the children who are already out of school cannot afford to wait for changes to be enacted.

Human Rights Watch pressed on the rights side of the argument, saying governments should eliminate barriers to accessing quality education. The group is careful in its language to say that it is not just about butts in seats, but learning. Achieving the new goal would require a renewed global effort led by national and local governments, with the support of donors and the U.N. holding all accountable, it said.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]