Access to basic education: almost 60 million children of primary school age are not in school

The world has made a lot of progress in recent generations, but millions of children are still not in school.

How different would your life be if you never went to school and never learned how to read and write?

For millions of children, this is the case. Of the world’s 787 million children of primary school age, 8% do not go to school.1 That’s 58.4 million children.

The chart shows where they live in the world.

This is UNESCO data for the year 2019. During the pandemic, this number increased temporarily, but even at pre-pandemic levels – to which the world will hopefully return soon – the number was much too high. 58 million children out of primary school means 58 million who don’t even have the chance to learn how to read and write.

Why are children not in school?

To make progress, we have to understand why children are not in school.

One major reason is violence in the world’s ongoing conflict areas, including Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Nigeria. Half of all out-of-school children live in conflict-affected countries.2

The other large barrier – often closely intertwined with conflict – is poverty.3

In low-income countries, public finances for education are very low: the annual spending in a high-income country like Austria is more than 200 times higher per student than in a low-income country like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the worst cases, poverty requires children to work – most commonly on smallholder farms – and this means they leave school early or never enter school in the first place.

If we want to make progress on education, then we will need to continue the developments that reduce conflict and poverty.

These macro changes are essential but can seem intangible in the short term. Targeted policies can make a difference in such situations. One policy with a long and well-established track record is to provide free meals in schools. School meals achieve two goals at the same time: They offer children a better diet, and they provide an incentive for parents to send their children to school. Research studies have shown that school meals increase school attendance and have a long-lasting impact over the child’s lifetime. A study in Sweden showed that pupils who received meals in school in the 1960s had 3% higher lifetime incomes.4 They have even been shown to have intergenerational benefits: the children of mothers who received school meals when they were children also benefit from school meal programs.5

Widespread access to even the most basic education is a very recent achievement

As is so often the case with large global problems, the state of the world today is at the same time terrible, yet also much better than it was in the past.

This chart shows the same data as the first one, but it now also shows how the world has changed since the previous generation, 20 years ago. The share of children who are out-of-school has declined in all world regions. Globally, this share has halved. Today, 8% of children are not in school; twenty years ago this was 16%.

A generation ago, it was girls in particular who did not have access to schools. This inequality has declined, and today, the absolute number and the share of boys and girls who are out of primary school is similar.6

Until recently, access to education was restricted to a very small elite everywhere

This recent change is part of a much larger development that spans the last few generations.

Until then, no matter where a child was born, its chances of getting even the most basic education were very small. Everywhere in the world, education was restricted to a small elite population.7

The chart shows this big global development. In all countries – including those where children today have the best education – widespread access to even basic education is a recent achievement.8

Click to open interactive version

The global revolution in literacy

Reading is the single most important educational skill a young child can learn. How did literacy change as more and more children gained access to a basic education?

The chart shows that two centuries ago, only 1 out of every 10 adults knew how to read and write. This ratio has flipped since then: today, about 9 in 10 adults do have this basic skill.

To make progress against the world’s problems, we need a strong team of educated people. From this perspective, it makes sense to consider this global change in absolute numbers. Today, there are about 4.6 billion people who can read and write.9 In 1800, there were fewer than 100 million people with the same skill. We have a much stronger team than ever before.

Click to open interactive version

Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not

The majority of children that have ever lived did not have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. In the extreme poverty of the pre-growth economies, children with great potential ended up living a life in poverty. Even very basic educational skills – like reading and writing – were a privilege of a small elite.

It is hard to imagine what all these girls and boys could have become. Perhaps it is easier to see the importance of at least basic education by looking at those around us today and asking what their chances would have been without it. What would have become of Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Steve Jobs, or Einstein if they were born into a society in which children didn’t have access to basic education?

The world has made a lot of progress in recent generations, but a lot of work is left for our generation today. Almost 60 million children are growing up without the opportunities that you and I had, thanks to the primary school that we were able to attend.

In this text, I focused on access to primary education. In my follow-up article, I will focus on the quality of education. I will show how extremely large the differences in educational quality between countries are and which opportunities there are to improve education, especially for the very poorest children in the world.


  1. I have calculated the total number of primary school-age children based on the number of primary-age out-of-school children and the global share of children who are out of primary school.

    (58.4 million / 8.02 %) * 100 = 728.2 million

    This means that, in total, there are (728.2+58.4 =) 786.6 million children of primary school age. On the topic of out-of-school children, see the regular UNESCO reports. The latest of which can be found here.

    The 'primary school age' differs from country to country. The UNESCO reports the primary school starting age data for countries around the world.

  2. See UNESCO: Half of all out-of-school children live in conflict-affected countries This was still the case in the latest available data for 2019 when 48% of out-of-school primary-school-age children lived in areas that are classified as “fragile and conflict-affected areas”. See: Children out of school, primary - Fragile and conflict-affected situations in the WDI.

    See also UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015) – A Growing number of children and adolescents are out of school as aid fails to meet the mark.

  3. World Bank (2018) – World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1096-1.

    An analysis of 31 “credibly causal” studies on the impact of spending on learning outcomes in the US shows that higher spending leads to better outcomes. Jackson, C. K., & Mackevicius, C. (2021) – The Distribution of School Spending Impacts. National Bureau of Economic Research.

    The countries where the share of children not in school is low – lower than 5% – all have a GDP per capita above $35,000.

  4. Lundborg, P., Rooth, D.-O., & Alex-Petersen, J. (2021). Long-Term Effects of Childhood Nutrition: Evidence from a School Lunch Reform. The Review of Economic Studies, rdab028.

  5. Chakrabarti, S., Scott, S. P., Alderman, H., Menon, P., & Gilligan, D. O. (2021). Intergenerational nutrition benefits of India’s national school feeding program. Nature Communications, 12(1), 4248.

    On the impact of school meals on attendance and learning outcomes, see also the research of Elisabetta Aurino.

  6. This is also true across individual countries: the countries in which the share of girls that are out-of-school is high tend to be the same countries in which the share of boys that are out-of-school is high.

  7. There are a few countries in which the primary school enrollment was high in 1820 – most notably the Scandinavian countries. But there, the relatively high enrollment rates were a recent development, achieved in the few generations just before 1820. In Sweden, basic education improved rapidly in the 18th century.

  8. This data is from Lee, J.-W., & Lee, H. (2016) – Human capital in the long run. Journal of Development Economics, 122, 147–169.

  9. There are about 5.4 billion people older than 15 years, of which, as the chart shows, 86% are literate.

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    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {Access to basic education: almost 60 million children of primary school age are not in school},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2021},
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