Education hampered by lack of investment in health & nutrition, warns UNESCO

1 USD invested in school meals generates USD 9 in benefits, says report by UNESCO, UNICEF & WFP



February 8, 2023

/ By / Paris

Education hampered by lack of investment in health & nutrition, warns UNESCO

Various arms of United Nations called for higher investments to be made in taking care of health & nutrition of school children to improve global learning standards

A report by various international organisations, notably UNESCO, WFP and UNICEF, says that even though investing in school health and nutrition has a significant positive effect on children's academic achievement, 1 in 3 schools in the world still lack access to drinking water and basic sanitation facilities.

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A new report by various arms of the United Nations – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme has called for higher investments to be made in taking care of health and nutrition of school-going children, in order to improve global learning standards.

In a press statement released today, the three bodies say that even though there is clear evidence of the benefits of including health and nutrition as key focus areas of schools, there is not enough being done in this regard as over 33 pc school-going children remain deprived of these.

Good health, nutrition and well-being are essential to maximise educational potential. Healthy, well-nourished, happy children and adolescents learn better and are more likely to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. School health and nutrition programmes are a cost-effective and feasible way to deliver on this promise, says the report.

The report says that for gains of 1,000 days to be sustained and children to achieve their full potential, it is essential to support their health, nutrition and development during the next 7,000 days of life, throughout middle childhood and adolescence. Children in middle childhood and adolescents are affected by a range of largely preventable and treatable health problems, including unintentional injury, interpersonal violence, communicable and non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, sexual and reproductive health issues and poor mental health. Education is also undermined by hunger, school violence and bullying, and early and unintended pregnancy.

“Students learn best in safe and healthy schools. Yet too many educational institutions lack the means to assure good health and well-being, including essential drinking water and sanitation facilities. UNESCO and its partners are calling on the international community to support countries in their investments in health, nutrition and social protection at school – because children deserve an environment where they can reach their full potential,” says Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.

According to a press statement, the report, Ready to learn and thrive: School health and nutrition around the world, shows that the provision of school health and nutrition incentivise children to come to school, and to stay there. School meals alone increase enrolment and attendance rates by 9 pc and 8 pc, respectively.

De-worming and micronutrient supplementation can result in pupils attending school for 2.5 additional years in places where anaemia and worm infections are prevalent, it adds. The report also addresses other issues such as the promotion of eye care, mental health and well-being of children and the prevention of school violence.

The report underlines that all these measures represent a significant return on investment for countries, in addition to improving the daily lives and study conditions of children. For example, school feeding programmes deliver USD 9 in returns for every USD 1 invested, and school programmes that address mental health can potentially provide a return on investment of USD 21.5 for every USD 1 invested.

The report says that the linkage between health, nutrition and education became more evident than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report says that even before the Covid-19 pandemic, 260 million children and adolescents were not in school and 57 pc of students in low- and middle-income countries could not read a simple text with comprehension by the age of 10. This figure has been exacerbated to an estimated 70 pc after the pandemic. The report says that such programmes can reduce absenteeism due to illness, increase school retention, and ensure that children and adolescents are able to learn. They are also effective in mitigating the impact of multiple threats to the health, well-being and education of children and adolescents, including poverty, food insecurity, conflict and climate change.

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting school closures highlighted the critical role of school health and nutrition in protecting the health and well-being of learners. School closures not only intensified the learning crisis, with the greatest consequences for socio-economically vulnerable children and adolescents, but also reduced access to essential support and health interventions as an estimated 370 million school children lost access to school meals, often their only meal of the day. Child poverty and malnutrition, already significant challenges, are now coupled with a global food crisis made worse by rising food prices, says the report. 

The report says that such programmes are central to education sector efforts to recover from the pandemic, including the safe reopening of schools and getting all learners back to school. It adds that schools can take measures to reduce the risk of transmission, provide learners with vital information to protect themselves and their families, offer school meals and support to students whose physical and mental health have been adversely affected by the pandemic and other crises, and promote resilience and well-being. These interventions can contribute to more equitable and inclusive access to education and health for those most at risk of missing out notably the poor, sick and malnourished, those living with HIV, children with disabilities, and those affected by crises. 

Insufficient and unequal investment

If nine out of 10 countries around the world invest in school health and nutrition programmes, these investments are unequal from one region to another and often insufficient compared to the needs. Stronger commitment from national governments and support from the international community are essential. Globally, only USD 2 billion is invested each year in addressing the health needs of school-age children and adolescents, whereas some USD 210 billion is spent on educating this age group in low and lower-middle-income countries, say the three organisations in their joint report.

Currently, almost 1 in 3 schools (31 pc) do not have safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities. This means that an estimated 584 million children have limited or no access to basic drinking water services at school and two in five of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. And while almost all countries in the world provide school meals, an estimated 73 million of the most vulnerable children still do not benefit from these school feeding programs on the ground.

UNESCO, UNICEF and WFP appeal to international community, countries and partners to step up actions to protect and promote the physical and mental health, nutrition, well-being and development of all learners. All stakeholders are urged to focus on key interventions appropriate to local contexts and needs, including: the provision of school meals; vaccinations; de-worming; psychosocial support; skill-based health education that enables learners to lead healthy lives; and safe and inclusive learning environments that promote health and well-being.




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