Pandemic Threatens to Drive Unprecedented Number of Children into Learning Poverty
The COVID-19 pandemic could drive up learning poverty, the share of 10-year-olds who cannot read a basic text, to around 70 percent in low- and middle-income countries, according to preliminary analysis from an upcoming World Bank report. This rise is a result of the prolonged school closures and poor learning outcomes despite government efforts to deliver remote learning. In many of these countries, schools have been closed for as many as 200 to 250 days, and many have yet to reopen.
These latest data show an increase of 17 percentage points in learning poverty, even grimmer than the estimate of a 10 percent deterioration issued earlier this year. Prior to the pandemic, learning poverty was already at 53 percent and initially estimated to rise to 63 percent, but the new data shows an actual rise to 70 percent.
“Hundreds of millions of children have lost at least a full year of schooling due to COVID-19. This pandemic has brought about the largest loss of human capital in living memory and the worst education crisis in a century,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “It’s vital for children to be in school, especially primary school age children. The consequences of school closures could be felt for decades and are contributing to even wider inequality, particularly for girls.”
Evidence from several countries also confirms these stark trends. In Brazil, research from the state of Sao Paulo found that every month of school closure meant at least one month of foregone learning. As a result, a child who was in 3rd grade when schools were open, and who is now returning to school after one-and-a-half years of school closures, has the learning level of a 3rd grader, not that of a 5th grader. As other studies showed, similar learning losses have been recorded in the Western Cape province in South Africa and in the state of Karnataka in India. Failure to recover these losses will lead to as much as a 10% loss in life-time earnings for the generation of children in countries with longer school closures.
COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow to the lives of young children, students, and youth and further exacerbated inequalities in education. On top of the intergenerational inequality due to lost and missed learning for this generation, the gap in achievement between rich and poor children has also widened. Many young children—an estimated 350 million children at the peak of the crisis—also lost their main meal at school, risking an increase in child malnutrition and irreversible damage to their cognitive, language, and physical development and human capital. Among different age groups, the pandemic’s impacts on learning have been most evident for primary school and pre-K children.
Many students are also likely to fall further behind due to the pandemic, as they will not return to school once schools reopen. In Kenya, one month after schools reopened in January 2021, a third of adolescent girls and a quarter of adolescent boys -- between the ages of 15 and 19 -- had not returned to school. This finding is comparable to the trend observed during the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone where schools were closed for almost a full year and between one-fifth and a quarter of adolescents did not return to school.
“The losses in education are one part of the dramatic human capital reversals that are threatening this generation. It is both a moral and economic imperative for us to take action,” said Mamta Murthi, Vice President for Human Development at the World Bank. “Countries must implement ambitious and aggressive plans at scale to recover these losses, with a sharp focus on the most disadvantaged populations, particularly girls, children with disabilities, and those in poorer families.”
In response to the deepening education crisis, the World Bank has rapidly ramped up its support to developing countries, with projects reaching at least 432 million students and 26 million teachers – one-third of the student population and nearly a quarter of the teacher workforce in current client countries. The World Bank is the largest source of external financing for education in developing countries. In the last two fiscal years, our support to education has reached $11.5 billion.