11 unexpected barriers to education around the world

August 15, 2019
Photo by Kieran McConville

Many kids in the US head back to their classrooms over the coming weeks, but 263 million children and youth around the world won’t be going to school at all. We fill you in on some of the lesser-known reasons why kids are missing out on an education.

Education can help to end poverty. It has been called a “linchpin of progress” to this end. Conversely, a lack of education has a disastrous effect for individuals, as well as their communities and countries. 

This is why a universal primary education is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030. Many of the poorest countries in the world are also those that have the poorest education rates. According to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries just had basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty.

Global education facts

Before we dive into some of the barriers to education, a few quick facts to keep in mind as you read this piece (courtesy of UNESCO): 

  • 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%.
  • More than 50% of young people in 58 out of 133 countries have not completed upper secondary school. In Niger, only 2% of its young people have completed this education.
  • In 24 out of 52 countries, fewer than 25% of children in rural areas attend a pre-primary program like kindergarten. In Afghanistan, fewer than 1% get this crucial basic education.
  • In 30 countries, fewer than 90 females for every 100 males complete lower-secondary school. 
  • In 35 out of 75 countries, at least 25% of the poorest young women are illiterate. 

So what are the barriers to education? There are some common ideas that come to mind, including location and resources. But that isn’t the whole story. Here are 11 unexpected barriers to education around the world. 

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1. Lack of toilets

Imagine going to school and asking to use the bathroom — only to find that one didn’t exist. 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. Access to clean and safe toilets increases the amount of time that children can be in school.

2. Harvest & market days

In farming communities, the harvest is not only an important source of food. With surplus crops sold at market, it’s also a vital source of 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 often have to move around to go with their grazing herds, or 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 basic education go hand-in-hand in many countries. Girls who get married often 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. According to the UN, one-third of girls in the developing world wed before the age of 18, and one in nine get married before the age of 15. In most instances, marriage and childbearing 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 crisis and conflict zones. According to UNESCO, the first two years of Syria’s civil war erased all the country’s educational progress since the start of the century. Without quality education, many fear that Syria’s children will become a lost generation.

5. Climate change

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 change-related events like El Nino and La Nina 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. Without qualified teachers in the classrooms, children suffer.

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 school. For boys currently out of school, the rate of never starting school is just 16%. This rate is highest in emergency situations and fragile states.

Girl in school

Rahima in a grade school in Upazilla, Bhedarganj, Bangladesh. Photo: Marie Mc Callan

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.

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.

Boy in uniform

Mohamed Koroma, Student at National Commercial Junior Secondary School. Photo: Michael Duff

11. Outbreaks and epidemics

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

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 reading and writing. 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.  In addition to supporting millions of students accessing primary education, we’ve also built and renovated thousands of classrooms and schools worldwide. 

Barriers to Education around the World