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Safe to Learn?

Global evidence showing how violence affects children’s outcomes at school

Deborah Fry*

Improving education quality and raising learning outcomes are central to the post-2015 global education agenda. Still, both within and without schools, significant barriers to learning exist. Among these, violence in childhood is increasingly recognised as a serious problem that has a profound negative impact on educational outcomes. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[1] include specific goals to end violence, improve educational outcomes and to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, but there is a lack of information which shows how these aims are interconnected.

We know quite a bit about the impacts of violence – numerous reviews and meta-analyses have been conducted at the global[2],[3],[4],[5], regional[6],[7] and national[8],[9] levels. In every country where it has been measured, violence in childhood has been shown to impact the health of well-being of children. We also know some information about the impact of different programmes which aim to improve educational outcomes such as school attendance and learning outcomes – which are typically measured by test scores in core subjects like reading and maths[10],[11],[12]. Measuring learning and other educational outcomes such as enrolment is important because enrolment does not ensure attendance and attending school does not necessarily mean children will learn[13].


There is less evidence of the impact of violence on educational outcomes,[9],[14],[15] despite the realization that education goals cannot be met when children live in fear.[16],[17] Though some research has looked at how specific types of violence affects certain academic outcomes, [18],[19],[20],[21] there has yet to be comprehensive evidence which shows how the myriad forms of violence in childhood impacts educational outcomes at the global level.

Recent research conducted by the Safe Inclusive Schools Network (SISN) based at the University of Edinburgh sought to fill this evidence gap.[22] SISN is an interdisciplinary network of colleagues working together to support the achievement of SDG education Target 4a which calls for the provision of safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all. SISN members undertook a systematic literature review and meta-analyses to explore how violence in childhood affects children’s outcomes at school globally. The search was broad: several different educational outcomes – such as dropping out of school, school absence and academic achievement (typically measured by standardized test scores) – were included. Multiple types of violence were also searched, including sexual, emotional, physical violence, neglect and bullying. The review also included all articles on violence against children, violence by children toward others and violence to which children are exposed. Locating articles from 21 different countries, the team analysed the data to estimate the magnitude of the association between different types of violence and educational outcomes.

All forms of violence in childhood had a significant impact on educational outcomes. All types of violence negatively affected children’s grades and test scores, and also impacted the likelihood of children graduating from school. Children who had experienced any form of violence were 13% less likely to graduate from high school compared to children who hadn’t experienced violence.Certain types of violence were found to be more significant for specific outcomes. Bullying had a strong influence on school attendance and participation through school engagement and less of an impact on academic achievement compared to other forms of violence. Sexual violence had a substantial impact on standardized test scores: children who experienced some form of sexual violence were more likely to score lower on standardized tests by 29 percentile points. Boys’ and girls’ outcomes also differed. Violence – especially bullying – was more likely to impact boys’ absence from school compared to girls’. When looking at outcomes like having to repeat a grade or to take remedial classes, emotional violence had a larger impact on girls than on boys.


While there are limitations to this research – such as that many of these studies were from high-income countries, and they also differed in how they measured violence and educational outcomes which affects comparability – these results are important to understand how and to what extent different forms of violence in childhood contribute to inequalities in education. The findings support the idea that prevention of violence in childhood can be viewed as a key strategy for raising attainment and improving educational outcomes globally for both boys and girls.

One step in this direction would be to link effective approaches to preventing violence in childhood – including the INSPIRE framework[23] – more explicitly to SDG 4. For example, complementing the seven strategies from the INSPIRE framework with robust monitoring and evaluation and multi sectorial coordination could be achieved in part by linking to indicators associated with SDG Target 4a where possible. This research confirms that increased investment in violence prevention is an important strategic aim for ending all violence against children, enhancing educational outcomes and ensuring that students are learning in safe, non-violent and inclusive environments.

*Dr Deborah Fry is Senior Lecturer of Child Protection at the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh where she leads on Preventing Violence in Childhood Research and co-leads the Safe Inclusive Schools Network (SISN). She is was also a member of the East Asia and Pacific Know Violence Learning Group and member of the Asia-Pacific Research Network on Violence in Childhood (APRN) that has just formed out of that initiative.


1. UN General Assembly. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 2015

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3. Hillis S et al. Global prevalence of past-year violence against children: a systematic review and minimum estimates,Pediatrics, 2016,137(3): 1–13

4. Pereda N et al. The international epidemiology of child sexual abuse: A continuation of Finkelhor (1994), Child Abuse & Neglect, 2009, 33(6): 331–342

5. Stoltenborgh M et al. A global perspective on child sexual abuse: meta-analysis of prevalence around the world, Child Maltreatment, 2001, 16(2): 79–101

6. Fry D et al. The consequences of maltreatment on children’s lives: a systematic review of data from the East Asia and Pacific Region, Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2012, 209–233

7. UNICEF.Child maltreatment prevalence, incidence and consequences in East Asia and the Pacific: A systematic review of research, 2012

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10.Cuesta A et al. School infrastructure and educational outcomes: A literature review, with special reference to Latin America, Economía, 2016, 17(1): 95–130

11. Glewwe P et al. School resources and educational outcomes in developing countries: A review of the literature from 1990 to 2010, 2011, No. w17554, National Bureau of Economic Research

12. Snilstveit B et al. Interventions for improving learning outcomes and access to education in low-and middle-income countries: a systematic review,2015, International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, London

13. Rose P & Alcott B. How can education systems become equitable by 2030? DFID think pieces–learning and equity, 2015,DFID

14. Gilbert Ret al. Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in high-income countries,The Lancet, 2009, 373(9657): 68–81

15. Fry D. Preventing violence against children and how this contributes to building stronger economies. Thematic research paper for the 3rd high-level meeting on cooperation for child rights in the Asia-Pacific region, 7–9 November, 2016, 2016,Government of Malaysia & UNICEF

16. UNESCO. School violence and bullying: Global status report, 2017

17. UN Secretary General. Protecting children from bullying: Report of the Secretary-General, A/71/213, 2016

18. Espelage DL et al. Associations between peer victimization and academic performance,Theory into Practice, 2013, 52(4): 233–240

19. Basch CE. Aggression and violence and the achievement gap among urban minority youth, Journal of School Health, 2011, 81(10): 619–625

20. Romano E et al. Childhood maltreatment and educational outcomes, Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2015, 16(4), 418–437

21. Nakamoto J & Schwartz D. Is peer victimization associated with academic achievement? A Meta-analytic review, Social Development, 2010, 19(2): 221–242.

22. Fry D et al. The Relationships between Violence in Childhood and Educational Outcomes: A Global Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Child Abuse and Neglect, 2017

23. WHO et al. INSPIRE: Seven strategies for ending violence against children, 2016


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