Poor children 7 times less likely to finish school than rich children: new Oxfam report

Published: 17th September 2019

Across the developing world, a child from a poor family is seven times less likely to finish secondary school than a child from a rich family, according to a new report published by Oxfam today.

Oxfam’s research reveals a shocking divide in education opportunities for children depending on their family’s income and wealth —even in rich countries, only three quarters of children from poor families complete secondary education, compared to 90 percent of children from the richest families.

The report, ‘The Power of Education to Fight Inequality’, also shows a clear correlation between underinvestment in free public education and the number of children out of school. For example, with 24 million children out of school, Pakistan has some of the lowest education spending and worst educational inequalities in the world.

Kira Boe, education policy lead at Oxfam, said:

“Governments are jeopardizing the future of children across the globe by failing to invest in free quality public education. Every child should have a fair chance to realize their potential, not just those whose parents can afford to pay.”  

Girls and boys born into poverty arrive at the school gates already disadvantaged as they often suffer from ill health and chronic malnutrition, which stunts their development and impacts on their ability to concentrate at school. Public spending on education tends to be focused in wealthier communities which means schools in poor areas are often overcrowded, lack qualified teachers, and basic resources such as schoolbooks and toilets. For example, in Malawi, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Lesotho and Senegal, the richest 10 percent get more than half of government-allocated education resources. UNESCO estimates that 330 million children are in school but still not even learning basic skills. 

Many of the poorest girls don’t even make it through the classroom doors. Gender, like income, ethnicity and geography, determines who gets a quality education —or an education at all. In a poor rural area of Pakistan, girls are three times more likely than poor boys to have never attended school. Pulled out of school before their brothers, millions more of the world’s poorest girls continue to have their life chances diminished through lack of education.

The report also highlights how the privatization of education fuels inequality. Low-fee schools keep costs down by paying extremely low wages to underqualified teachers, which impacts on the quality of education provided, while fees of any kind have been shown to exclude the poorest children. 

Quality public education has been shown to be a powerful way of reducing inequality and building fairer societies that make the most of the talents and potential of all children. While the educational divide created by underinvestment in public education fuels inequality. For example, in El Salvador, 47 percent of adults with a secondary education are in formal employment, compared to just 5 percent of those who didn’t finish primary school. 

Many governments, like Ecuador, Ethiopia and Vietnam, recognize this and have dramatically increased funding of public education. Ethiopia is the fifth largest spender on education in the world as a proportion of its budget and between 2005 and 2015, it has brought 15 million more children into school —from 10 to 25 million. Ecuador tripled its education spending between 2003 and 2010 through effective tax mobilization policies and prioritizing education in its budget. 

“Governments must urgently invest in free quality public education to ensure that all girls and boys have the same opportunities. Fairer taxation of wealthy individuals and corporations can help pay for this. The answer to the education crisis is investment in public education, not ploughing public funds, including aid, into private schools,” added Boe. 

Oxfam’s report calls on governments and donors to build equitable and good-quality public education by:

  • Delivering free quality public education for all children. This includes eliminating all fees, staffing schools with qualified and fairly-paid teachers, and providing extra help to the poorest children.
  • Ensuring education helps achieve greater equality for girls. Address the barriers that keep girls out of school, such as providing separate bathrooms, and ensure that teachers and textbooks promote positive gender roles and avoid stereotypes. 
  • Boosting investment in public education. At least 6 percent of GDP should be allocated to public education in low and middle-income countries paid for through fairer tax systems. Donors including the World Bank should not direct public aid funds to private schools.

Notes to editors

Spokespersons are available in Denmark and Ghana.

Download The Power of Education to Fight Inequality.

Oxfam’s research uses data from UNESCO’s Education Inequalities Database.

More information on Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education.

Contact information

Annie Thériault in Lima, Peru | annie.theriault@oxfam.org | + 51 936 307 990 

For updates, please follow @Oxfam