Learning poverty has increased by one-third in low- and middle-income countries, according to a report published June 23 by World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, U.K. government Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the 69 countries studied, an estimated 70% of 10-year-olds are unable to understand a simple written text. This rate has increased since the pandemic. In 2019, an estimated 57% of 10-year-olds experienced learning poverty.

Learning poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean has been impacted most severely, as a predicted 80% of primary-school-aged children are unable to understand a simple written text. Before the pandemic, around 50% of 10-year-olds experienced learning poverty.

In South Asia, an estimated 78% of primary-school-aged children lack minimum literary proficiency. In 2019, 60% of South Asian children lacked minimum literary proficiency.

Children in Sub-Saharan Africa experienced the highest rates of learning poverty before the pandemic at 86%. Since COVID-19, this rate has risen to 89%.

This generation of students living in learning poverty risks losing $21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings (in present value), which is 17% of the global gross domestic product.

According to the report, prolonged school closures, poor COVID-19 mitigation effectiveness and household-income shocks as a result of the pandemic are among the factors responsible for driving up the rate of children experiencing learning poverty.

These statistics are reflective of a profound global learning crisis, the effects of which were underestimated before the pandemic.

In 2019, when the World Bank and UNESCO Institute for Statistics began the learning poverty measure, the global learning poverty estimate for primary-school-aged children in 2015 was 53%.

“New data presented in this report show that in 2019, the global learning poverty rate was even higher than previously thought: 57 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries were living in learning poverty,” the report states.

A press release accompanying the report says, “Prolonged school closures and unequal mitigation strategies have worsened learning inequality among children. Evidence is mounting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups are suffering larger learning losses. … Without strong foundational skills, children are unlikely to acquire the technical and higher-order skills needed to thrive in increasingly demanding labor markets and more complex societies.”

“Every child has a right not only to be in school, but to learn in school, acquiring the basic skills that are the foundation for higher learning and higher income levels someday – in turn supporting equitable development and sustainable growth,” Robert Jenkins, the UNICEF Global Director of Education, stated in the press release. “We need to reach every child, in every situation. … We can’t let children’s learning become yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The full report may be found here.

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