11 unexpected barriers to education around the world

August 2, 2022
Photo by Kieran McConville

Whether online or in-person, millions of kids in the US will head back to their classrooms this month. But over 260 million children around the world won’t be going to school at all. Here are some of the reasons kids miss out on an education.

Education can help to end poverty. It can open the door to jobs, resources, and skills that help a person not only survive, but thrive. According to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than half. This is why the United Nations named quality education one of its Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030.

On the flip side, a lack of education has a disastrous effect for children, as well as their communities and countries. This isn’t just a hypothetical, either. In 39 out of 99 countries, fewer than 50% of the poorest children have completed primary school. In some countries like South Sudan, that figure is as low as 7%. In 58 out of 133 countries examined by UNESCO, more than 50% of young people have not completed secondary school. In Niger, that figure sinks down to just 2%. 

But what’s keeping kids out of the classroom? There are some common ideas that come to mind, including location and resources. But that isn’t the whole story. Here are eleven unexpected barriers to education around the world. 

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1. Lack of toilets — especially for girls

Let’s get straight to the dirty business: Access to clean and safe toilets increases the amount of time that children can be in school. Many schools have no toilets (let alone separate bathrooms for boys and girls). This means missed school days for kids with minor stomach bugs — or for girls who get their period. The World Bank estimates that girls around the world miss up to 20% of their school days due to their period. Usually this is because they don’t have sanitary pads or private bathroom facilities. 

2. Harvest seasons & market days

In agricultural communities, the harvest is both a vital source of food and income. During these periods, children are often required to skip school to help their families harvest and sell crops. Sometimes they’ll be out of school for weeks at a stretch. Families who make their living from farming may also have to move around if they have herds that graze, or in order to harvest crops planted in different areas. This is also disruptive for children and their education. 

3. Child marriage

Child marriage and a lack of education go hand-in-hand. Girls who get married early usually drop out of school to take care of their new husbands and families. There’s also a correlation between a lack of formal education and girls marrying young (often without a choice). According to the UN, 33% of girls in low-income countries wed before the age of 18. Just over 11% get married before the age of 15. In most instances, marriage and having children means the end of a girl’s formal education

4. Conflict and war

Conflict may seem like an obvious barrier to education, but the scale of its impact is staggering. USAID reports that about half of all children not attending school are living in conflict zones. According to UNESCO, the first two years of the Syria crisis erased all the country’s educational progress since the start of the 21st century. Recovering these missed years also takes more time and effort, with many Syrian children requiring psychosocial care that hinders a “normal” learning curve. Without quality education, many fear that Syria’s children will become a lost generation.

Syrian refugee Ayham* 28, points at the number 4, written in Arabic,on the blackboard as a student counts the numbers, from 1 to 5, during a non-formal education program at an informal tented settlement in northern Lebanon. (Photographer: Dalia Khamissy; names changed for security)

5. Climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to education. Extreme weather patterns are on the rise and can send vulnerable communities tumbling into poverty. One of the first things families are forced to do in these situations? Pull their children out of school. They can no longer afford the fees, and need their children to work. Climate-related events like El Niño and La Niña can also destroy or damage classrooms, leaving them closed for long stretches of time (or indefinitely).

Nsanje, Malawi- A boy watches his cattle as they graze in the flooded maize fields which are now part of Shire River.

A boy watches his cattle as they graze in the flooded maize fields which are now part of Shire River, Malawi.

6. Unpaid teachers

When governments are dysfunctional, public servants don’t get paid. That includes teachers. In some countries, teachers aren’t paid for months at a time. Many have no choice but to quit their posts to find others sources of income or are moved to other districts. Schools often struggle to find qualified teachers to replace those who have left. But, without qualified teachers in the classrooms, children suffer the most. 

7. Being an older student

According to UNICEF, adolescents are twice as likely to be out of school compared to younger children. Globally, that means one in five students between the ages of 12 and 15 miss school. As children get older, they face increased pressure drop out so that they can work and contribute to their family income. One solution we’ve adopted at Concern is to help those who didn’t complete their education build invaluable skills.

8. Being female

One of the cruelest barriers to education is gender. In many countries around the world, girls are more likely to be excluded from education than boys. This is despite all the effort and progress made in recent years to increase the number of girls in school. According to UNESCO, up to 80% of school-aged girls who are currently out of school are unlikely to ever start. For boys currently out of school, the rate of never starting school is just 16%. This rate is highest in emergency situations and fragile contexts (such as conflict).

Girl in school

Rahima is a student in Upazilla, Bhedarganj, Bangladesh. (Photo: Marie McCallan)

9. Violence and bullying in the classroom

Traditionally, we think of school as a safe place for children. Unfortunately, it’s a place where many experience violence (at home and abroad). A UN study found that, while 102 countries had banned corporal punishment in schools, the ban isn’t enforced. The report also found that many children faced sexual violence and bullying in schools. Children will often drop out of school altogether to avoid these situations. Even when children stay in school, violence can affect their social skills and self-esteem. It also has a negative impact on their educational achievement. This is something Concern has addressed head-on in Sierra Leone with our Safe Learning Model

10. Cost of supplies and uniforms

Though many countries provide free elementary education, attending school still comes at a cost. Parents and caretakers often pay for mandatory uniforms and other fees. School supplies are also necessary. According to a World Bank report, these costs can keep many students out of the classroom.

A young girl in a Concern supported school in Sierra Leone.

Funded by Irish Aid, Concern has completed a multi-million euro, five-year programme in Sierra Leone’s Tonkolili district to gather data and design a blueprint for an effective safe learning model to end school-related gender-based violence (and other forms of violence in the classroom).

11. Outbreaks and epidemics

We learned this the hard way with COVID-19. Even if the student body is healthy, they may be kept out of school if an epidemic has hit their area. Teachers might get sick, families with sick parents may need their children to stay home. Quarantines can go into effect. The 2014-16 West African Ebola outbreak was a severe barrier to education in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ebola put the education of 3 million children in these countries on hold. As a response, we worked with the governments of both countries to deliver lessons by radio. We also trained community members to work with small groups of children on basic reading and math. As schools reopened, we shifted our focus to help children get back into classrooms safety.

Other barriers to education — and how we’re eliminating them

There are many expected barriers to education that have an equally high impact on children. This includes a lack of funding for schools and untrained teachers. What does the most damage changes from one area to the next. But perhaps one of the top barriers is when children aren’t properly taught the basics of literacy and numeracy. This has a ripple effect on their ability to learn in all other subjects, and causes many children to drop out of school altogether.

For Concern, education and the elimination of extreme poverty go hand-in-hand. Learn more about a few of our recent programs — and support work like this — below: 

Barriers to Education around the World