The Challenge

While access to education has been dramatically extended in recent years, and gender parity improved in many countries, substantial gaps remain.

For the school year ending in 2017 an estimated 262 million children and youth aged 6 to 17 were out of school (Source:UNESCO). Many of these children live in fragile or conflict-affected states. Despite the progress that has been made, girls are still more likely to be out of school than boys, and children with disabilities are less likely to ever attend or complete school than those without a disability. 

It is estimated that more than 617 million (six out of 10) children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics (Source: UNESCO)

Even where children are in school, many are not acquiring an appropriate level of knowledge and skills.

The global response

This is why the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reaffirms education as a fundamental human right and its Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) aims to 'ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all' by 2030. Providing access to quality education for all is also fundamental to achieving many other SDGs, including those related to poverty, gender equality, climate action and health.  

The EU response

The EU has a strong and well-established commitment to supporting education development in partner countries and supports actions on education in approximately 100 countries through a number of its own funding instruments, including 60 countries where education is a focal sector or a component of a larger cooperation programme for the programming period 2014-2020. The EU also funds and supports global education partnerships.

The EU prioritises the strengthening of education systems as the way to improve educational outcomes over time. It works at country, regional and global levels, through different forms of support, adapting the support to the context, and coordinating and partnering with EU Member States, bilateral and multilateral agencies, civil society and the private sector.

Importantly, EU support is designed so that it meets specific national or regional needs and is aligned to country-led priorities and policies. This includes active participation in national education sector coordination groups and forums for policy dialogue.

EU-support to education

EU support is based on specific national or regional contexts and needs, contributing to priorities agreed as part of national policy dialogue, sector policies and plans. This national-level support is framed by the EU’s policy commitments, its response to global political, economic, demographic and social challenges, to global trends in education and to all countries’ endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At regional level, the EU finances higher education programmes such as Erasmus+. The programme provides grants in the fields of education, training, youth and sport to individuals and organisations, encouraging mobility, collaboration and partnerships.

EU Trust Funds have also been set up to respond to specific regional situations. These include the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and the EU regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian crisis. These Trust Funds are funded by the EU, its member States, and other donors. They work directly with governments, local authorities and civil society organisations in partner countries to support vulnerable population groups.

The European Commission is an active contributor to regional and global policy dialogue and financing for education initiatives such as Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and Education Cannot Wait (ECW).

The GPE provides support in more than 65 countries with the greatest education needs. The EU and its Member States are the biggest contributor to the GPE.  The EU committed an overall funding of EUR 475 million for the period 2014 - 2020.

ECW is a global initiative that aims to transform the delivery of education in emergencies and protracted crises. Since its establishment in 2016, it supported up to 1 million of the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach children and young people in 19 crisis-affected countries. The EU has so far committed EUR 16 million to support ECW. 

Education in conflict and crisis areas

In many countries, conflict or other crises, often protracted over many years, have led to deterioration and even collapse of the education system. In such cases, humanitarian agencies may focus on the immediate needs of service delivery where they can.

However, even in these contexts, EU support is focused on maintenance and strengthening of the system and realising the opportunity to 'build back better' to increase future resilience. The EU has been increasing its support to fragile countries both by increasing the share of humanitarian assistance allocated to education to 10% by 2019, as pledged in the Communication on Education in Emergencies and Protracted Crises. as well as by allocating a larger proportion of bilateral development assistance to fragile and crisis-affected countries (See Directorate-General ECHO website for more information on humanitarian aid in education).


In 2017, the EU adopted the European Consensus on Development. The Consensus provides a framework for action that is aligned to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and structured around the key themes: people, planet, peace, prosperity and partnership. The Consensus acknowledges the central role that education plays and represents an important commitment to increasing access to quality education for all. It reiterates the importance of working through national systems in order to ensure lasting change, taking an approach based on country-led policies and reforms, policy dialogue, and strengthening local capacity.

EU support to Education is also framed by specific education policies promoting:

  • A comprehensive approach to the sector, from early childhood to tertiary education, acknowledging the necessity of a ‘balanced education sector’, notably for national growth. This is reaffirmed by the Consensus, which reiterates the importance of supporting all education sub sectors, and draws attention to the importance of comprehensive early childhood interventions and primary education as the foundation for all further learning and skills development.
  • Strengthening systems and capacities to provide quality education for all and to reinforce the links between education and the world of work.
  • A focus on more inclusive and equitable access to basic education with attention to gender issues, children with disabilities and learning difficulties, ethnic and linguistic minority children, and those living in remote or unsafe areas. The Consensus reiterates the EU commitment to a rights-based approach, to leave no one behind, wherever people live and regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, religion or beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity, migration status or other factors.
  • A stronger focus on learning. Teachers are recognised as central to improving the quality of learning. There is also a strong focus on effective school leadership, adequate and appropriate resources, and safe school environments that encourage learning.
  • Strengthening links with other sectors and areas that impact on the performance of education. This includes for example mechanisms to provide specific support to more vulnerable children such as social protection interventions. Nutrition and food security are key factors in children’s access to education and their cognitive development. Health and Child Protection are also areas that have an impact on children’s access to education. Parents’ education and stimulation in children’s early years are vital to success in school. Likewise, the quality of public administration is critical, given its responsibility for the management, motivation, deployment and availability of competent and motivated teachers, school principals and education managers.

Education support in fragile situations

The EU is a global leader in supporting education in emergencies and crisis situations through its humanitarian and development aid programmes. A new EU Communication on Education in Emergencies and Protracted Crises was adopted by the Council in November 2018.

The new policy framework focuses on four priority areas: 

  • Strengthening systems and partnerships for a rapid, efficient, effective and innovative education response
  • Promoting access, inclusion and equity
  • Championing education for peace and protection
  • Supporting quality education for better learning outcomes.

In addition, the EU has increased its support to education in emergencies and crises; the share of humanitarian aid for education should increase to 10% by 2019. A large proportion (nearly 60%) of EU bilateral funding to education under the programming period 2014 - 2020 is allocated to fragile or conflict-affected countries. 

The EU has initiated BRiCE - Building Resilience in Crises through Education  (EUR 20 million) which aims to improve access to safe and quality basic education for children in fragile and crisis-affected environments, with a particular focus on evidence building on what works well in crisis environments.


EU-funded interventions completed between 2013-2017 contributed to the following results in partner countries. (Results brochure)

47 763 000 children enrolled in primary education

21 087 000 children enrolled in secondary education

613 000 teachers were trained in partner countries, all providing a foundation for future learning and skills

EU contributed to an improvement in girls’ education. An increasing number of girls complete schooling in the 23 countries where EU budget support targets education.  

With a ratio of 97 girls for 100 boys on average, gender parity in those countries has not materialised yet, but it is within reach. The EU will continue making girls’ education a priority for dialogue and results monitoring. (Budget support trends and results)

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