More than half of all children who turn 10 this year will reach their milestone birthday without being able to read a simple sentence, according to a new analysis of UN data.
Of those 70 million 10-year-olds, 11.5 million of them could be unable to read as a direct result of the impact on education of the Covid pandemic.
According to the anti-poverty One Campaign, which analysed the figures, the magnification of education inequalities due to Covid is shown by a rise of 17% in the numbers of children who will not learn to read at all, compared with the previous year.
The campaign called on a G7 meeting at the end of March to pledge to invest $5bn (£3.5bn) in funding education initiatives.
“When children can’t read by the age of 10, this has a knock-on effect on their whole education, impacting on their ability to learn, earn, start businesses. This lost potential doesn’t just damage lives, it prevents whole economies from growing,” said the campaign’s executive director, David McNair.
“This virus has taken enough from us already – it must not take the futures of millions of children as well.”
The One Campaign said 40% of the children most at risk of losing out were from sub-Saharan Africa and that girls were being most seriously affected, with 20 million not expected to return to school, even when the education system is fully functioning again.
It follows a report issued by Unicef in October that said the pandemic had heightened existing inequalities and that while basic literacy rates were already poor in low and middle-income countries, children had less access to digital learning opportunities while classrooms were closed and so on average had lost a quarter of their school year.
At the peak of school closures last April, 94% of pupils were out of school, according to the World Bank. The One Campaign has appealed to the G7 to commit to ensuring 40 million girls can go to school by 2025.
The campaign also called for G20 finance ministers to support lower-income countries and delay debt-servicing payments that could take away from education spending. It also called on countries to ringfence their own education spending.
It said that unless action was taken, some 750 million children would be deprived of basic literary by 2030. “Unless we take urgent action, the legacy of the pandemic could be millions more children denied the chance to understand words on a page,” said McNair.