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393 million children unable to read: The world’s shocking lost potential

A new analysis tool illustrates the scale of the global learning crisis

LONDON, 26 April 2021: More than 393 million children have failed to gain the basic literacy skills at age 10 since world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, according to a new analysis tool launched today.

The Lost Potential Tracker — created by the ONE Campaign, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and Save the Children — is an interactive tool designed to measure the scale of the global learning crisis.

For the first time ever, education experts and the public can track, in real time, the increasing number of children who are unable to read and understand a simple sentence by age 10. The Lost Potential Tracker also makes accessible the stories of children affected by the global learning crisis, and allows users to step into the shoes of a policymaker and experience first-hand how effective financing can help turn the tide for children.

Based on calculations from official World Bank and UNESCO ‘learning poverty’ figures, and UN population data of all 10-year-olds, the Tracker sets out the number of children losing their future potential every year, month, week, day, hour, and second. Findings from the Tracker show that nearly 6 million children turn 10 each month without acquiring the basic literacy skills for their age. That is equivalent to the population of Johannesburg.

Without a commitment to effectively fund education for all, the organisations behind the Lost Potential Tracker warn that the world will not only fail to deliver on its education promises by 2030, but will also risk losing out on the next generation of doctors, teachers and leaders.

Tom Hart, Acting CEO of the ONE Campaign, said: “These figures reveal the shocking failure of world leaders to protect and prioritise children’s education. Too much is at stake for us to continue with the current business-as-usual approach. When children can transition from learning to read to reading to learn by age 10, it sets them up for a lifetime of learning and enables them to succeed throughout childhood and as adults. We must pick up the progress for change. Their futures depend on it. Our world depends on it.”

Alice  Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, said: “Learning how to read and write are essential building blocks for every child to succeed. This tool shows the depth of the global learning crisis – and what a critical situation the world faces if we don’t prioritize education. Without immediate political and financial action, the future of millions of children could be jeopardized.”

Kevin Watkins, CEO Save the Children, said: “The world is facing an unprecedented education emergency that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are to live up to our commitments to achieving the full range of SDGs and children’s right to education, then improving literacy levels is a must. Being able to read is a foundational skill that enables children to access their full curriculum – without being able to read, their life chances are stunted. This is particularly worse for children in some of the poorest and conflict-affected countries, for whom getting back to school and catching up on learning is more crucial than ever. We urgently need governments and donors to prioritise tackling the learning crisis in order to secure better futures for the world’s children.”

As part of this week’s Global Action Week for Education, they are urging governments to commit at least US$5 billion for the Global Partnership for Education replenishment conference and endorse the two global targets on girls’ education set out by the UK.


Notes to Editors

  • The age of 10 is a pivotal milestone in a child's life, where they transition from learning to read to reading to learn. It is a make-or-break moment that allows a child to go from simply learning to read words on a page to understanding complex subjects and content.
  • Even before COVID-19, World Bank and UNESCO estimates indicated that 90% of 10-year-olds in low-income countries could not read and understand a simple story.
  • For the first time ever, education experts and the public can track, in real time, the increasing number of children who are unable to read and understand a simple sentence by age 10. Key highlights from the tracker include:
    • Every month, nearly 6 million children lack the basic literacy skills expected of a ten year old; this is equivalent to the population of Johannesburg.
    • Every week, over 1.3 million children are affected; this is equivalent to half of the secondary school students enrolled in Canada.
    • Every day, over 193,000 children are affected; this is equivalent to nearly filling the seating capacity of Camp Nou Stadium twice, the largest football stadium in Europe.
    • Every hour, 8,050 children are affected; this is equivalent to filling 29 UK primary schools.
    • By the end of 2021, 70 million children could be affected.
  • According to the April 2020 Malala Fund report, girls are at risk of falling through the cracks, with 20 million of them never returning to school.
  • Effective and targeted education funding is key to combating this global learning crisis. Every US$1 billion of education funding to low-income countries can help ensure over 8.6 million children acquire basic literacy skills by the age of ten.
  • The Global Action Week for Education 2021 —  organised by the Global Campaign for Education —  will take place between the 26-30 April focusing on education financing.

ONE is a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030, so that everyone, everywhere can lead a life of dignity and opportunity. We are non-partisan and pressure governments to do more to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa, and empower citizens to hold their governments to account. Read more at www.one.org.

GPE is a shared commitment to ending the world’s learning crisis. We mobilize partners and funds to support 76 lower-income countries to transform their education systems so that every girl and boy can get the quality education they need to unlock their full potential and contribute to building a better world. GPE is currently calling on world leaders to “Raise Your Hand” and pledge at least $5 billion for the next five years to help GPE transform education in up to 90 countries and territories, which are home to more than 1 billion children. Read more at http://www.globalpartnership.org/.