Percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds who failed to complete primary education in Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia by wealth quintile

Post-2015: If we don’t tackle educational inequality, we’ll fail the fairness test

By Will Paxton, head of education policy and advocacy for Save the Children UK and chair of the Global Campaign for Education UK’s Policy Group, and Anthony Davis, policy adviser for Plan UK

As debates about the post-2015 development framework rumble on, there appears to be considerable agreement that in education a refocusing from access to learning will be needed. But where are we on educational inequality?  How strongly is this now embedded in the broader post-2015 development debate?

Many organizations, including the EFA Global Monitoring Report team, are highlighting inequality as a critical education challenge, but on the whole it is not being taken seriously enough and there is in sufficient recognition of just how vital it will be. This is a major problem.

It is also surprising because much of the overall development debate is focused on inequality in other areas. Income and wealth inequality are very much on the agenda. Even some unusual suspects like the IMF and OECD have highlighted why extreme inequalities in society potentially undermine social cohesion and put constraints on economic growth.

Yet for some reason there is relative silence about one of the major drivers of lower income inequality – the creation of more equal education systems. The experience of countries like South Korea in the 60s, 70s and early 80s and more recently Brazil is that spreading educational opportunity widely leads to lower levels of overall inequality.

No child should be forgotten post-2015 

This is one reason the Global Campaign for Education in the United Kingdom decided to focus our latest report on educational inequality.  Our core argument is that in the post-2015 framework, forging greater equality of educational opportunity must be front and centre.

We simply cannot afford to repeat the mistake of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which failed to focus on the most disadvantaged.  As the UN has saidTo the extent that accelerating progress towards some targets is easier when resources are concentrated among the better off, the era of the MDGs may have inadvertently seen some channelling of resources away from the poorest population groups or from those that are already at a disadvantage.

We cannot afford to make this mistake again.

The children we have left behind

In the GCE report we chart the scale of the educational inequalities and injustices that continue to hold millions back from fulfilling their potential.

  • Despite gains (the MDGs did focus on gender inequity), girls continue to be disadvantaged in many countries and regions.  Not only have 68 countries failed to achieve gender parity in primary education (with girls disadvantaged in 60 of them) but in many countries girls are also less likely to transition to secondary school, more likely to drop out and less likely to pass national examinations.
  • Children born into the poorest households are less likely to be in school and learn once there.  Using the WIDE database developed by the EFA Global monitoring Report team, we take the examples of Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia.  The chart below shows the significant inequalities between income groups in these three countries.  In Nigeria, for example, in 2008 two thirds of the poorest 15-24 year olds had not completed primary school compared to only 3 per cent of the richest.
 Percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds who failed to complete primary education in Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia by wealth quintile
Percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds who failed to complete primary education in Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia by wealth quintile
  • Where a child lives also affects whether or not they can access education and how well they do if in school. The urban poor are a major and growing concern, particularly children living on the streets or in informal settlements. However, taken as a whole, children in rural areas have fallen far behind those in urban areas and are less likely to be enrolled in school.
  • And finally, a lack of disability focus, or even mention, in the MDGs has contributed to the comparative neglect of children with disabilities. A disproportionately high number of disabled children are out of school – poor disabled children, whose families cannot help support them, fare worst.

Failure to tackle inequality is why we are off track on universal primary education

Also using WIDE data, GCE-UK carried out some new analysis of the impact of high inequality on the numbers of out of school children. Our research suggests that if the attendance rate for all Nigerian children of primary school age rose to that of the wealthiest males, the number of out-of-school children of primary school age in 2008 would have been 5.1 million rather than 9.7 million. In Pakistan, the impact would be proportionately even larger: the number of out-of-school children of primary school age in 2007 would have been 2.5 million rather than 6.6 million

In these two countries alone this would mean close to 9 million fewer children out of school.  It is a simple, but important point: the failure to tackle inequality is a major reason why we are falling short on the promise of universal primary education.

Are we serious about reducing inequality?

It is pointless to talk about income inequality being a problem without willing the means to actually reduce it.  The evidence is clear – more equal schools where all children have a good opportunity in life significantly contribute to lower later income inequality. Today’s inequalities in education are tomorrow’s inequalities of income and wealth.

That is why post-2015 education goals and targets must include a specific focus on inequalities. This means measuring the progress of girls compared with boys, the poorest compared with the best off, children with disabilities compared with those without and those living in disadvantaged areas compared with those in wealthy areas.

It is only by doing this, by devising indicators with a robust focus on inequality, that this time around no child will be overlooked and fairer school systems will play their role in forging fairer societies.



  1. Disaggregated data of the kind presented here is certainly one way forward and needs to be built into monitoring and accountability mechanisms, as the focus on gender has shown. But many other groups that have been marginalised in the current round of MDGs must not be overlooked.

    Although children with disabilities account for one third of the 61 million out of school children, we have very little data with which to assess progress towards 2030 goals. Their exclusion from national household data collection leads inexorably to their exclusion from school and from society and to the deprivation of their basic human rights.

    As it happens, the 128 governments that have already ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have a commitment in international law to report progress in extending EFA to children with disabilities but it is clear from their reports that they lack the data to do so and that the process is far too slow.

    One way forward would be to combine the monitoring of the Conventions with the new MDGs into a new more streamlined process with relevant and credible data.

  2. It is a privilege to leave a comment on a subject that appeals to all educationists. The issue of inequality seemingly is the critical issue in education of the poor and marginalised. Children fail not due to lack of cognitive skills but results of the ‘hidden exclusions’ which relates to the whole environment.Inequality and exclusions lead to dropping out early a relief to parents, teachers and of course to the students as well.! As rightly stated all these lead to poverty of all sorts in the years to come.

    How should we avoid this calamity? Parental , more so mother, education should be the the first step.This is very important for those in the developing countries where poverty of all sorts emerge along with exploitation where again the female becomes the first victim.

    Actions should emerge through education. In Sri Lanka ‘Mothers |Development Project’ though NFE approaches was launched nd currently a model project is piloted in one province titled ‘ ‘Education of Poor and Powerless: Small Schools Development Strategies’. A hand Book is in print which focus on all the stake holders highlighting the responsibilities and strategies for all those connected.
    S.B. Ekanayake

  3. We have begun to address the pre-school availability in Rural Mozambique. Our first school was opened in May 2014. it is located about 40 kilometers outside of Gorongoza town. Due to it’s location, building costs are extremely high and this limits the speed at which they can be supplied. This is our first attempt and would welcome partners and advice as we go forward. Our vision is to place 1000 community centers in these extreme rural areas.

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