Musamat Murshida Sultana, aged six, at a UNICEF-funded pre-primary school in Satkhira Sadar, Bangladesh Picture: UNICEF/Gilbertson VII
A lack of early childhood development will deprive hundreds of millions of children of the chance to fulfil their potential, UNICEF has warned.
The vast numbers of children missing out on learning in their early years is hugely concerning, said the United Nations children’s agency in its annual State of the World’s Children report.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said: "Denying hundreds of millions of children a fair chance in life does more than threaten their futures - by fueling intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, it imperils the future of their societies.
“We have a choice - invest in these children now or allow our world to become still more unequal and divided.”
The report said that "learning deficits begin early". In the 28 countries or areas with available data for 2014, fewer than half of children aged between three and five were developmentally on track in literacy and numeracy.
Four-year-old Oluwabukunmi Falayi writes at his desk at home in Abuja, Nigeria Picture: UNICEF/Gilbertson VII
UNICEF said: "In early childhood and primary school, children acquire the foundational skills that allow them to develop problem-solving capabilities, flourish in secondary education and later succeed in employment markets."
It added: "Education can provide children with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. It is associated with increased incomes, reduced poverty and improved health.
"But for education to play this role, it must begin with early childhood development and continue with quality learning opportunities that provide all children, especially the most disadvantaged, with a fair chance to thrive."
The report painted a bleak picture of what is in store for the world’s poorest children if governments, donors, businesses and international organisations do not accelerate efforts to address their needs.
UNICEF pointed out that significant progress has been made in saving children’s lives, getting children into school and lifting people out of poverty.
But this progress has not been even or fair, the report said. The poorest children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday and to be chronically malnourished than the richest.
Children in a classroom in Guinea with new education kits Picture: UNICEF/Hyams
Across much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, children born to mothers with no education are almost three times more likely to die before they are five than those born to mothers with a secondary education.
And girls from the poorest households are 2.5 times more likely to marry as children than girls from the wealthiest households.
UNICEF said "nowhere is the outlook grimmer than in sub-Saharan Africa". At current trends, more than half of the 60 million primary-age children will still be out of school in 2030.
Sadly, the number of children who do not attend school has increased since 2011 - and a significant proportion of those who do go to school are not learning.
About 124 million children today do not go to primary and lower-secondary school. Almost two-fifths of those who finish primary school have not learned how to read, write or do simple arithmetic.
Children at a pre-primary class in Cameroon for refugees from the Central African Republic Picture: UNICEF/Rich
UNICEF warned that unless the world focuses more on the plight of the most disadvantaged children, the statistics will still be horrific when we reach 2030 - the target date of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Based on current trends, 69 million children under five will die from mostly preventable causes, 167 million children will live in poverty and 750 million women will have been married as children by 2030.
In a blog today for UNICEF, Gordon Brown - the UN Special Envoy for Global Education - said a set of short-term, practical proposals are needed to support children in edication:
- Invest in children - "We must focus on getting every child into school and also ensure that quality of learning is consistently high."
- Education Cannot Wait fund - the fund for education in emergencies "can address the needs of the estimated 75 million children affected by crises and protracted emergencies".
- Uphold children's rights - "An International Children’s Court, along with a Children’s Commissioner appointed to each country, is vital."
- Listen to young voices - "The United Nations General Assembly should host a session for children and young people, preferably before its next session."