Ending education’s ‘hidden exclusion’

hidden-exclusion-coverA new report from Save the Children, Ending the Hidden Exclusion: Learning and equity in education post-2015, offers a detailed assessment of the challenges facing global education. The report’s key argument is outlined here by four Save the Children education experts from around the world: Desmond Bermingham, Gerd-Hanne Fosen, Will Paxton and Dan Stoner.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and much policy thinking in recent decades have rightly focused on an obvious and invidious exclusion – the large number of primary school age children who are still out of school.

But now we need to focus much more on a “hidden exclusion”: children who are in school but learning little or nothing.

Our new online hub for resources and other updates on education post-2015 gathers links to proposals from around the world.
Our new online hub for resources and other updates on education post-2015 gathers links to proposals from around the world.

Though less obvious, this form of exclusion is also both incredibly damaging for each child’s life chances and detrimental for achieving a fairer society. That’s why a post-2015 global education goal must include the explicit objective of not only improving overall learning, but also narrowing gaps in learning between the best off and the poorest, most disadvantaged children.

The scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. The chart below, adapted by Save the Children from work by the University of Stellenbosch’s Nicholas Spaull, distinguishes between “simple” enrolment – merely being in school – and “effective enrolment” – where children are in school and gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills.

In South Africa, for example, almost 100% of children are enrolled, but only around 70% are “effectively” enrolled; almost 30% are suffering from “hidden exclusion”. For many other countries – such as Malawi, Zambia or Namibia – the gap between simple and effective enrolment is even greater.

‘Simple’ versus ‘effective’ enrolment in literacy and numeracy of Grade 6 students in select eastern and southern African countries


Source: Based on data from Spaull and Taylor (2012) ‘Effective enrolment’ Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers 21/12.

The poorest and most marginalized are hit hardest by this hidden exclusion. In Uganda, for example, children from the best off households are 20 percentage points more likely to be in school and learning (measured using literacy at the end of primary school). In South Africa the gap is a shocking 33 percentage points. There are similar, though slightly less stark, differences between children in urban areas and those in poorer rural areas.

Gaps in learning are likely to be even greater for the children we know are most marginalized – including those living in conflict-affected areas, disabled children and those facing disadvantage because of their ethnicity or their mother tongue.

We know more about how marginalized these groups are in terms of access to school, not least because of the important work by the EFA Global Monitoring Report team and their World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE). But we know relatively little from national data about how much children in these groups suffer from hidden exclusion.

Save the Children is acutely aware, however – from its extensive experience working with some of the most disadvantaged children – that they face particularly large barriers to learning and tend to learn much less once in school. They are often the first generation in their families in school and will have less support in the home, might be asked to learn in a language other than their mother tongue and often live in areas with poorly resourced schools and the least trained teachers.

Narrowing learning gaps requires ambition and boldness

So what does this mean for the post-2015 development framework? Save the Children believes that tackling hidden exclusion demands an overall improvement in education quality: the overarching goal we have proposed is that all children “receive a good quality education and achieve good learning outcomes”. But critically we must avoid one of the main pitfalls of the current MDGs – a failure to explicitly target most inequalities.

That is why we must underpin an easily articulated overall goal with an ambitious target to substantially narrow the learning gaps between the poorest and best-off children. Our specific proposal is that this target should be:

“Narrowing the gap in literacy and numeracy learning outcomes achieved by aged 12 between the poorest and richest quintiles.”

Some will argue that this should be more ambitious: that is definitely an option. We could, for example, set a more explicit target of reducing the gap by 50%. There would certainly be a case for having more specific targets like this. But the absolutely critical point is to have a clear “gap narrowing” target of some form in the post-2015 framework.

Without such a target, we could ensure 100% enrolment in primary school in the coming years, only to let millions continue to suffer from a damaging hidden exclusion.



  1. This is an insight to an aspect that has not been looked into. When a child enters school it is assumed that the child is ready to learn, posses all materials needed for effectively learning and therefore responds to learning in school. positively. This is far from the truth. This report highlights the follies of thinking in that light and throws a new dimension. Thus the focus on the negative or factors that are not obvious are analysed in this report for the benefit of the educational authorities. The importance of drawing attention to these aspects becomes very pertinent Hence the authors shuld be congratulated for taking this initiative.

    S.B. Ekanayake Ph.D

  2. I have worked with Barry Sesnan in Echo Bravo, who describes a school as: i. a place to learn ii. a place to get a paper (cerfificate), iii. a place to be. The report’s findings probably point at No. iii. There is a strong co-relation between poverty and education/academic achievement: at a macro level, it importantly explains the difference in education between the developed and underdeveloped world (rich and poor countries). At a micro level, it explains the difference in access to and achievement in education, between poor and rich households. I have experimented a conscious marriage between education and livelihood programmes for poor households and it was impressive how attendance went up; parental involvement went up; achievement began to improve; and completion/progression were visible.

Leave a Reply