23 Major Barriers to Education

barriers to education in developing countries

Not all children have access to education. Right now 264.3 million school aged children have either never been to school or have dropped out early. Major barriers to education include poverty, lack of infrastructure, war and conflict and natural disasters. Addressing these problems is a global challenge.

Many of my students think poverty is the only barrier to education. 

Not true.

Some of these issues can’t be fixed with money alone.

As you’re about to find out, there are many, many more problems we need to tackle to help get these 264.3 million children into school.

Don’t Forget…

This article is the second in a three-part Helpful Professor series exploring the importance of education. These are the three articles in the series:

  1. 27 Reasons Education is Important
  2. 23 Major Barriers to Education
  3. 11 Lifelong Effects of Lack of Education

A Note to Teachers: Turn this post into a lesson for your class. Print out each barrier and hand them out to your students. Don’t include the solutions (yet). Get your students to discuss and list creative solutions to each challenge themselves. Then, present them with the solutions provided in this post.

A Note to Students: Use these points for an essay on barriers to education. I’ve provided links to all of my sources throughout this piece. Make sure you reference those sources in your essay.

You might also want to read my post on how to write great essays if you’re planning your essay right now.

>>>Related Post: How to Make an Essay Shorter

Here are the 23 biggest barriers to education in 2019:

1. Lack of Learning Materials

The Problem

When you really think about it, we use a lot of resources throughout our lives as students. Most students in the developed world will go through resources like:

  • Textbooks;
  • Pens, Paper and Pencils;
  • Specialist mathematics tools such as compasses and protractors;
  • Literacy books – many, many books!
  • Smartphones for conducting research;
  • Computers and laptops for writing essays.

Yet many children around the world do not have basic resources.

Without the above resources, students’ learning is hindered. They are required to make do with what they’ve got.

And lack of resources is not just because of poverty.

Save the Children reports that young children may lack access to books because:

  • Not enough books are being published in their native language; and
  • There are not enough books published for young children in their region.

A Solution

Save the Children’s First Read initiative gives books to children who lack access to early childhood education resources.

They do this by:

  • Training local authors and illustrators;
  • Publishing books from local authors and illustrators;
  • Distributing books to children in need;
  • Workshopping with parents on how to encourage literacy skills at home; and
  • Encouraging parents to form playgroups and story groups in the local community.

Related Article: How Can Health Influence Learning?

2. Displacement due to War

The Problem

A Save the Children study found that lack of education is one of the top reasons families flee conflict zones.

Families often end up in concentration camps for long periods of time after they flee violence. However, many camps lack adequate educational facilities for children.

The first and most important tasks of refugee camps are health and safety. This pushes education down the list of priorities. Consequently, education can often be overlooked. 

Furthermore, it is usually assumed that refugee camps are transitory places. Children should ideally not remain there for long. Unfortunately, some children end up in camps for long periods of time and miss out on a great deal of education.

As Save the Children argues:

“…learning require[s] too much time to be implemented while a child is still on the move and consequently children miss out on opportunities to learn, necessary for their development and wellbeing, for protracted periods of time.”

A Solution

Save the children created versatile education kits that can be used in refugee camps where few educational resources are found. Their ‘Little Boxes of Wonder’ involve all the resources needed for an on-the-go education.

The kits are designed to be adaptable for multiple age groups so that they are as versatile as possible.

Lessons in the kits include lessons on:

  • Art and craft;
  • Citizenship education;
  • Dealing with trauma;
  • Mathematics;
  • Communication skills; and
  • English literacy development.

3. Lack of Family Income

The Problem

Children in poverty are the most likely to drop out of school. While we might say “well, let’s make education free”, it’s actually much more complicated than that.

Yes, some families can’t afford the school fees. But most nations in the world offer free basic education to all children.

So why are poor families still failing to send their kids to school?

Here are some reasons:

  • Even when school is free, the costs of transport, uniforms and educational equipment may be too much to bear;
  • Families in poverty often need their children to drop out of school to start earning an income for the family.

A Solution

There are many charities helping children in poverty to get an education. Children International, for example, offers the HOPE scholarship to many children. The scholarship is funded by donations on their website.

This case study of Cesia from Honduras outlines how the scholarship provides funds to Cesia on the condition that she gets adequate grades and completes the school year.

4. Lack of Sanitation for Girls during their Period

The Problem

A UNICEF report found that 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school due to their period. Another study from the World Bank found many girls missed four days of school every four weeks due to their period.


Factors that prevent girls from going to school during their period include:

  • Stigmatization: Girls are expected by their community to stay home during their period;
  • Cultural and Religions Beliefs: Many religions and cultural superstitions see a girl’s period as shameful and dirty.
  • Lack of Sanitary Pads: Many girls do not have access to appropriate sanitary pads In Malawi, for example, one sanitary pad costs an average day’s wage. This forces girls to say home during their period;
  • Lack of safe Bathrooms: Sexual violence in bathrooms can prevent girls from feeling safe to go to school during their period;
  • Lack of education: Some girls are not taught about safe use of sanitary products.

The Result?

Many girls simply drop out of school once they hit puberty. In India, it is estimated that 20% of girls quit school once they’ve hit puberty. In the province of Maharashtra, that figure jumps to around 80%.

A Solution

The US Peace Corps is teaching girls in Uganda how to create their own sanitary pads. Before the pads, girls were using unsanitary old fabrics which often failed to work.

So, Peace Corps volunteers along with other foundations are giving girls materials and skills for creating hygienic pads. The Uganda initiative is using RUMPS (Re-usable menstrual pads) that cost at little as $1 per pad.

Other local activists like Peace, a 15-year-old from Nigeria started the Youth Advocate for Sustainable Development group with her father. They advocate for free sanitary pads from the government.

It’s important to remember that local people are taking action, too. It’s not always western charities doing all the work – western charities just have the loudest microphones.

5. Discrimination Against Pregnant Teenagers

The Problem

Often, girls who fall pregnant feel the need to drop out of school.

In Sierra Leone, girls who are pregnant are prevented from attending school

During the Ebola outbreak, when schools shut down, pregnancies subsequently skyrocketed.

This meant that many thousands of girls were suddenly cut-off from getting the education they needed and deserved.

A Solution

One headmistress in Sierra Leone decided to take matters into her own hands. Mary Sesay got funding from a range of partners including IrishAid and UNICEF to start up classes for pregnant girls outside of school hours.

The headmistress encourages girls to return to normal schools after they have had their baby. By going back to regular school hours, she hopes the girls can pursue their dreams of getting well paid jobs in the future.

6. Lack of National Income

The Problem

Nations that are crippled by debt, economic crises, and corruption often lack the money to pay for schools.

Child Fund argues that many countries fail to spend enough of their gross domestic profit (GDP) on schooling for their population. This has severe effects on poor people who cannot pay for private schooling for their children.

Nations that do not put enough money into their school systems often end up with:

  • Classrooms with too many children and not enough teachers;
  • Broken equipment such as desks and chairs;
  • Lack of communication technologies such as computers;
  • Unqualified teachers.

A Case Study

The economic crisis in Venezuela that began around 2016 has crippled the country. The government had no money to pay teachers or buy new equipment. There is also little to no maintenance of classrooms.

Teacher strikes and exodus of millions of people to Colombia and Brazil has meant that many children don’t even have teachers to educate them.

This has led many children to simply skip school. Routers reported on one school in September 2018:

“At the Benedicto Marmol school in Punto Fijo, only three of 365 students showed up on Monday, according to Falcon state teachers’ union representative Mari Garcia.”

A Solution

It’s hard to see a solution to Venezuela’s crisis while Maduro remains in power. Economic mismanagement by the Venezuelan government and economic sanctions by the United States have compounded the issue.

However, for nations not gripped by economic crises, the solution may simply be reprioritization of budgets. The average national spending on education is 3.5% of GDP. Any nation spending less than this amount may need to reconsider their priorities.

7. Child Labor

The Problem

According to Educate a Child, there were 168 million children in work in 2012.

That’s unbelievable!

What’s even more remarkable is that nations like the UK and the USA are listed as at ‘medium risk’ in this graph from Educate a Child.

It is tempting to say that families who allow their children to work instead of going to school are irresponsible and immoral.

But it’s important to remember that sometimes it’s a matter of life and death for families. If the family wants to live, the children may have to contribute financially.

Here are a few reasons for child labor:

  • Extreme poverty;
  • Families that don’t value education;
  • A sense that education won’t get you anywhere in life;
  • Cultural beliefs that children should start work as soon as possible.

A Solution

According to the International Labour Organization, child labour can be reduced through:

  • Economic growth that brings families out of poverty;
  • Increased labor standards that prevent child labor;
  • Free education for children;
  • Improved quality of education; and
  • Education to communities about the rights of children to a childhood free of labor.

8. Lack of Quality Education in Schools

Even when schools are available and free, many people have no faith in the quality of the education system.

This happens all around the world. You may have heard many people who have said: “I dropped out of school because I wasn’t being taught properly”, or because they were “uninspired.”

One mother in Myanmar spoke of reasons many people in her village stopped sending their children to school:

“Our education system is just focused on ‘learning by heart’. But after a while, you forget it all. We have to change to an education system better adapted to the needs of the children, where pupils understand easily what they are learning and where they can express themselves freely.” (Source)

A Solution

Beliefs about how to address this issue vary. This is because different people have different views on what a quality education looks like.

Some people may advocate increased choice between schools that offer different educational philosophies.

However, many experts believe that scientific and research-based teaching methods should be pursued to increase standards. This means increased training and support for teachers. 

Good education can’t be achieved when there are too many children in a classroom and not enough teachers. Teachers need time, space and training to plan quality hands-on lessons, focus on student-centered teaching methods, and explore new methods that suit each child’s needs.

9. Lack of Female Teachers

The Problem

Does this one surprise you?

In the western world, the teaching profession is dominated by women. In fact, as a male, I was praised for my decision to become an elementary school teacher: “we need more male role models for our boys,” people would say.

But this isn’t the case everywhere in the world.

The Malala Fund explains:

“In half of the provinces in Afghanistan, fewer than one out of five teachers is female. Families often will not allow girls to attend classes taught by men.”

So, why is this a barrier to education?

According to the Malala Fund, men in some cultures are often reluctant to allow other men to educate their girls. Cultural and religious norms dictate that women and men should be separated as much as possible.

So, we often need female teachers in girls’ classrooms. This will encourage parents to allow their children to head to school.

The Solution

Teach for Afghanistan, in collaboration with the Malala Fund, is working hard to recruit female teachers all over Afghanistan. In Teach for Afghanistan’s interview with one female teacher, the teacher spoke of the importance of her role:

“Afghanistan needs more female teachers and her work to convince parents to let their daughters go to school.”

10. Lack of Roads

The Problem

Even if education is free, people need to get to the schools!

Unfortunately many people in poverty lack access to transit such as a family car to get children to school. If schools are more than a mile from home, it can become increasingly difficult to get children to and from school each day.

Even more surprising. many poorer parts of the world do not have roads sufficient for carrying buses of children to and from school.

Furthermore, it can be hard to get educational resources to and from the schools when they can only be accessed by non-motorized transport.

A Solution

In the town of Martadi in a remote region of Nepal, donkeys and mules remain the primary form of transport.

To help get resources to the schools in remote parts of Nepal, UNICEF started up a donkey library.

Yes, you heard that right. UNICEF sends donkeys full of books to remote villages in Nepal!

UNICEF holds reading fairs called Melas in the villages they pass through on the donkeys. According to UNICEF, they have reached over 16,000 children with their travelling donkey library.

11. Lack of Public Transit

Even if the roads are good enough to get children to school, what can they do if there’s no viable transit system?

This is the case in many parts of the world.

Parents may not be able to afford bus tickets; and buses may not even be available!

Eduardo Vasconcellos reports on the situation in rural Brazil:

“With the lack of public transportation and an inability to pay for private transportation, most rural children abandon the school system after relatively few years,” he states.

The problem in Brazil was compounded by consolidation of schools in rural areas. In other words, to save money, the government made bigger schools but spread them out more. Now, schools are even further from children’s homes.

The Solution

Vasconcellos argues that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to lack of transport. Different areas of the world would need to look at different solutions such as:

  • Incentives for carpooling;
  • Private transit contracts with local governments;
  • Installation of public bus services;
  • Volunteer groups;
  • Use of alternatives like bicycles.

But, in Brazil, Vasconcellos says the solution is a mix of buses and promotion of bicycle use:

“The most promising way in Brazil (as well as other developing countries) appears to be a combination of non-motorized means (e.g. the bicycle) and motorized means (e.g. the bus).”

12. Lack of Clean Water

The Problem

Isn’t it incredible how these small issues create big problems?

In my first class each semester, I ask my university students what they see as the barriers to education. “Poverty,” they always say. Some might say “War”. 

But I’ve never heard a student say “Lack of clean water!”

Yet schools without clean water cause serious problems.

If there is no clean running water at schools, sanitation and hygiene collapse. Children can’t get a drink of water and the toilets might go out of order.

But here are some additional issues  to consider:

  • Students get ill from drinking dirty water and miss class;
  • Students miss class to care for sick family members;
  • Students miss class because they need to go and fetch water for their families. This is often a girls’ job, meaning it disproportionately impacts girls’ education.

The Solution

The Water Project raises funds to pay locals to build wells near schools and town centers. Their goal is to have a well within 1 kilometer of as many towns and schools as possible. 

A local well will decrease the amount of time it takes to fetch water and free up time for education.

According to The Water Project, their wells cost about $34 per student.

13. Gender Discrimination

The Problem

Girls are discouraged from going to school in many parts of the world. Reasons for this include:

  • Girls are expected to stay home and do domestic chores;
  • Families believe girls will not be able to get ahead (even if they were educated) due to social discrimination. This makes families reluctant to educate their daughters;
  • Girls may be seen as naturally less intelligent as boys, meaning they should not be educated;
  • Cultural and religious gender norms dictate that girls should not be educated.

A Solution

Many organizations are working hard to overcome gender discrimination.

One solution has been to provide educational scholarships specifically for girls. One popular fellowship is the Girl Icon Fellowship which is designed to propel girls into leadership positions.

If girls take up leadership positions in communities, they can begin to break down stereotypes that prevent girls from getting an education and into well-paid jobs.

14. Child Marriage

The Problem

Child marriage remains a serious problem around the world. Marriages of children are usually arranged by parents, reducing the children’s freedom of choice and their personal liberty.

According to Save the Children, every year there are 15 million children whose marriages are arranged for them. In poorer nations, one in three girls are married before age 18 and one in nine are married before 15. 

Forced marriages are usually the marriage of a younger, poorer girl to and older man. 

Poverty remains a driving factor for forced child marriages. In Nigeria, for example, 40% of poorer girls are married before age 18 while only 3% of richer girls are married off.

How does this impact education?

A marriage often marks the end of a girl’s education. She will often be required to bear a child and tend to domestic chores for her new husband.

A Solution

Save the Children’s Choices, Voices, Promises initiate is designed to reduce rates of child marriage. It does this through the following activities:

  • Choices: Educational activities in schools designed to get children to question gender stereotypes;
  • Voices: Community education programs designed to get families discussing gender issues at home;
  • Promises: Getting influential members of communities to advocate against child marriages.

15. Living in War and Conflict Zones

The Problem

Not all people living in war zones flee to become refugees. Some try to stay to protect their homes or in the hope that the war will end swiftly..

During times of war, schools shut down. This means that even those who say and try to survive the war end up losing months and years of education.

Other reasons children stop going to school in conflict zones include:

  • Families and governments focusing on survival needs like food, shelter and water instead of education;
  • Recruitment of children to the military to become child soldiers;
  • Schools being occupied by soldiers;
  • Schools being targets of attacks and bombings.

A Solution

The UK-based War Child charity is working in Jordan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan to help children keep up their education in times of war.

Here’s what they’re doing:

  • In Jordan: Providing e-learning on tablets distributed to children so they can learn from the relative safety of their homes;
  • In Afghanistan: Recruiting and training new teachers to replace those who have fled or died;
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: Building four preschool centers which will provide catch-up classes for students who have missed months of education due to war.

16. Lack of Schools

The Problem

According to Save the Children, less than 20% of children across the world have access to early childhood education.

This is due to lack of early childhood education facilities in many nations and lack of government funds to set them up.

Basic elementary school education can also be difficult to access, especially in remote areas of the world.

A Case Study

The Malala Fund writes of a case study of a child named Huma. Huma was forced to drop out of school at age 12 because there was no middle school for her to access.

A Solution

The Malala Fund worked to build a new school close enough to Huma for her to access.

The Fund has built a girls’ school with enough spaces for 1000 students in Shangla, Pakistan. The added benefit of this school is that it provides access to schooling for the most vulnerable children: girls in poverty.

17. Truancy (Skipping Class)

The Problem

Most of the barriers to education on this list have been external factors that children have little control over.

But the fact remains that in every country in the world there are also personal factors that may be a barrier to schooling.

One of those factors is truancy. Children who do not enjoy school, the style of teaching, or social aspects of education, may skip classes. 

Children who are bullied are at risk of developing anxiety about school which may lead to truancy.

A Solution

Often, truancy can be overcome by working with students to make school a place they want to attend. 

Theresa Petray argues that Aboriginal children in Australia have high truancy rates because the school system does not recognize their cultural identities. Schools that embrace cultural identities and have good relationships with the community may decrease truancy rates.

She also suggests that the curricula in schools need to change so that children learn mathematics, sciences and literacy in ways that are more enjoyable. Outdated teaching methods will put children off learning.

18. Chronic Illness

The Problem

Chronic illnesses such as chronic fatigue, leukemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and so on can prevent children from going to school.

This is especially the case with children who spend a lot of time in and out of hospital or who have ongoing spates of illness. 

These children can be out of school for weeks or months at a time. Such long absences can have very negative effects on children’s development. They are very likely to fall behind their classmates.

A Solution

Options for children with chronic illnesses include:

One organization working to advocate for the education of children with chronic illness is Project Pencil. This USA based organization provides advice for teachers and parents. 

They also provide advice on children’s legal rights to access to education despite their situation.

19. Exclusion due to Disability

The Problem

It has only been in the past few decades that developed nations have integrated children with disabilities into the mainstream school system.

For generations, children with disabilities would be educated in dedicated schools that kept them out of sight and out of mind.

And the integration of disabled children into the mainstream school system was a costly (but certainly worthwhile) undertaking.

Unfortunately developing nations are struggling to educate disabled children.

Developing countries struggle to provide enough funding for education in the best of circumstances. 

Caroline Logan argues that many developing nations don’t even have the resources to screen for and diagnose disabilities, let alone cater for their needs. 

Children with disabilities are therefore being left behind and left out. One figure I found states that in developing nations only 10% of children with disabilities attend primary school and only 5% complete primary school.

A Solution

There is a long way to go to address this problem.

The first step was to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in UN conventions. This right is now included in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

20. Extremism

The Problem

Extreme religious groups often prevent children from accessing education. Some examples are: 

  • The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan;
  • Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Africa; and 
  • Boko Haram in central Africa.

These extremist groups only allow for education based on religious doctrine.

Some fundamentalist religious groups in places like the United States and Canada also work hard to change curricula to preach anti-science religious doctrines in schools.

But the biggest problem is clearly religious groups that aim to prevent girls from getting an education.

A Famous Example

In 2008 the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. They banned television, music, and girls’ education.

Order was restored in 2009, although the Taliban continued to threaten girls against heading to school.

In 2012, Malala Yousufsai from northern Pakistan publicly spoke out in defiance of a Taliban order for girls not to go to school. For her efforts to get educated, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman.

Malala survived the shooting and is now a globally respected advocate for girls’ education.

A Solution

Regional instability is hard to combat without the use of security forces. The Pakistan military has a presence in the Swat Valley and has some control over the region now.

21. Nomads

The Problem

Yes, there are still many nomads in this world!

Did you know that 6% of the population of Africa are nomadic? These nomads span 20 different African nations.

In fact, there are 9.1 million nomads in Nigeria alone, and over 3 million of them are school age children!

According to UNESCO, barriers to formal education for nomads include:

  • An irrelevant school curriculum designed for non-nomadic people’s lives;
  • No consistent access to schools due to regular movement;
  • Nomads’ remote locations;
  • The fact that many nomadic children’s education involves working alongside their parents to learn culturally relevant skills.

A Solution

UNESCO has created a distance learning radio program that nomads can listen to as they move around Nigeria. This program teaches basic skills, but also advocates for the importance of formal education.

The program has been well received by nomadic groups. UNESCO believes this is because it’s participatory, meaning nomads can share their opinions on the radio, too.

To date, there are 239 official listening groups who tune in for their regular education.

22. Natural Disasters and Climate Change

The Problem

Natural disasters can have devastating effects on children’s education. Here’s how:

  • Classrooms and their belongings can get destroyed;
  • Infrastructure such as roads, electricity, telephone and internet lines, and water pipes can be destroyed;
  • Families may have to flee for their lives;
  • People focus on basic necessities such as water, food and healthcare, which leads to neglect of education; and
  • Schools become used as temporary living shelters for displaced people, preventing education from occurring.

Slow moving disasters like droughts can also negatively impact families. A drought may significantly harm farming families’ incomes, which may cause disruptions to education.

A Solution

USAID argues that the best way to minimize the impacts of natural disasters on education is to plan ahead. “We should not wait until there is a disaster to begin planning. Some of the most important work begins early,” they argue.

The Brookings Institute is working in Bangladesh to minimize impacts before they occur. They are working with a school district to map out flood prone school areas. They can then make contingency plans like organizing for schools on higher terrain to increase their capacity in times of disasters.

23. Lack of Classrooms

The Problem

There are parts of the world where there aren’t enough classrooms for the number of children who need an education.

Natural disasters and wars can lead schools to be totally wiped out.

One example is in Okhaldhunga, Nepal. After the earthquake in 2015, schools here didn’t have classrooms for three years.

During those three years, classes were held in hot, stuffy emergency tents. Classes had to be cancelled in the rainy seasons because the tents were not waterproof. Students were distracted and their learning suffered.

The community just didn’t have the resources or money to build new classrooms.

A Solution

In Nepal, UNICEF replaced emergency tents with Transitional Learning Centers (TLCs). While not perfect, these shelters did allow children to study in relative comfort all year round. The shelters should last for 3 to 5 years.

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Are you a charity doing good work to address barriers to education? Please drop me an email at: sam (@) helpfulprofessor.com with a paragraph about what you’re doing and I’ll include your case study in this list. Don’t forget to send me your website link, too.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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