Education is the cornerstone of development and is recognised by the UN as a human right. Access to safe learning environments is a vital requirement at every stage of child’s education – from the pre-primary years, during which a child’s brain undergoes 90% of its development, through to adolescence, when young people are prepared for the contributions they will then make to their communities, the economy and the wider world. A quality education can improve the life chances of individuals themselves – especially to girls – and the communities around them. It is strongly linked to improved physical and mental health, lower risks of exploitation such as modern slavery, child labour and armed conflict, greater equality, and more peaceful, prosperous societies.
Yet the ability to obtain a basic education is currently being jeopardised for millions of children worldwide by a lack of safety experienced in or around school. And there is reason to believe the situation is worsening. Nearly 370 million children live in conflict zones – an increase of 75% since the early 1990s. Millions live in countries where high rates of violence – much of it related to gangs and organised crime – terrorise communities and keep children out of school. Nearly 40 million children a year have their education interrupted by natural disasters such as earthquakes and disease outbreaks. The number of child refugees fleeing conflict and extremism, high violence and/or natural disasters is also on the rise, passing the 13 million mark in recent years.
Children can be attacked on the way to or from school, be deterred from attending school by real or perceived threats, and are increasingly being attacked within schools themselves – by militias, gangs and extremist groups looking to recruit, abduct, indoctrinate, intimidate, or use the school infrastructure itself for military purposes. Attacks on children and schools – including sexual assault – are often carried out as a specific military tactic. From within schools, bullying, corporal punishment and gender-based violence by teachers and fellow pupils remain disturbingly common. A lack of safety in schools can also impact on numbers of trained teachers. And while any child can be affected by these threats, it is the most marginalised groups in society – girls, LGBTI youth, children affected by health problems and disability – that are most disproportionately affected, further hampering their life chances and pushing them further to the margins.
New projections produced for this report reveal the sheer scale of the challenge and the impact of inaction on school safety. Within two years, there will be an estimated 550 million children of school and pre-school age (3–18), living across 64 countries, whose education is under threat from war, endemic high violence, or environmental threats. By 2030, this number will rise to 622 million – nearly a third of all children that will be alive at that point. The projections are grim: nearly a quarter of these children (22%) will not complete primary school, over half (54%) will not complete secondary school, and three-quarters (75%) will fail to meet basic learning outcomes in literacy and maths. This translates to three of every four young people in countries affected by conflict, violence and emergency unequipped with the skills to participate fully in society and the economy.
As these figures starkly show, failure to improve the safety of schools in these countries makes realising the ambitions set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on education (SDG4) impossible. Moreover, denying these children the education they deserve risks depriving some of the world’s most challenging areas of entire generations of builders, producers, innovators, problem-solvers, peace-makers, entrepreneurs, carers and life-savers. This deprivation in turn would perpetuate the cycle of unsafe education into the next generation and beyond, locking many of these countries into a future of violence and poverty. Urgent, large-scale action is clearly needed.
Yet current efforts by the international community fall well short of what will be required to avert this bleak scenario. There have been tentative signs of progress in recent years: funding for education through humanitarian and development aid is on the rise, and the creation in 2016 of the Education Cannot Wait fund represents a landmark in recognising the position of education in emergencies at the nexus between humanitarian and development aid. Yet still, nearly two thirds of humanitarian appeals fail to raise even 25% of the funds requested, despite consistently under-reaching in their ambitions. Domestic funding for education within countries affected by conflict, environmental threats and high violence stands at around half of what is recommended; and on current trends the external financing gap between realising SDG4 and the amount available will reach $89 billion by 2030.