The World Development Report 2018 (WDR) focused on how to help every child in the world learn. Schools play many roles in society, but helping children to master fundamental skills is one of their most important. While children are in the care of schools, we often assume that they’ll be kept safe. But far too often, they aren’t. Many children experience sexual, psychological, and physical violence at schools. While we don’t have consistent, global data on the number of children affected, the data we do have point to a serious problem: more than one in three children report being victims of physical attacks in school across a sample of Sub-Saharan African countries, two in five report psychological bullying in Central America, and more than one in ten students in Senegal and Zambia report sexual harassment at school over just a four week period. This is a violation of children’s right to be protected from violence, the most ratified treaty related to human rights in the world.
We suggest that addressing violence in schools—because it is bad, in and of itself—should be a first order priority for the education sector. But school violence also impedes learning. If you care about learning, it makes sense to care about curbing school violence. The WDR includes a brief discussion of the fact that “school-level violence hinders learning” (see the last paragraph of Box 2.1), and here we—one co-author of the WDR and one consumer of the WDR—dive deeper into the latest evidence on this topic.
The impact of school violence on learning is a tough question to answer.
Measuring the impact of violence on learning is a challenge for several reasons. First, schools that are more engaged in curbing violence may be more likely to report it (and so the data may suggest that they have higher rates of violence). Second, students may be targeted for violence—either by peers or by teachers—because of poor performance. One solution would be to use a randomized controlled trial of an intervention to reduce school violence and see how that affects learning; but interventions to reduce school violence have been mostly small in scale so far, often having a large enough sample to see the impact on violence but not large enough to see the follow-on impact on learning. In other cases, studies focused on reducing school violence do not focus on measuring learning. There are exceptional studies that do allow us to see the impact of violence reductions on learning, which we’ll discuss.
In the absence of experiments or quasi-experiments, studies seek to control for differences between students or between schools and examine the remaining impact of school violence on learning. We went through two dozen studies on the topic in low- and middle-income countries, and this is what we learned.
First, corporal punishment is consistently associated with poorer student learning. This runs counter to the intuition of many parents and educators, who have defended the use of corporal punishment to maintain discipline in schools. In India, corporal punishment from teachers had enduring negative impacts on English and math scores. Another study in India confirmed those impacts and showed that they were worse for the most vulnerable students. Evidence from Jamaica, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam all show a negative association between corporal punishment and student learning. Studies from Malawi and Uganda have more mixed results; remember what we mentioned earlier about the challenge of measuring this. The fact that the overwhelming majority of studies show adverse relationships—using different data and controlling for different variables—point to a clear pattern.
We also have evidence that if you reduce corporal punishment, learning can rise. A classroom management training program in Jamaica, evaluated via a randomized controlled trial (and so overcoming some of the challenges mentioned earlier), reduced teachers’ use of corporal punishment and improved children’s language and self-regulation skills.
Second, bullying is associated with poorer learning. Several multi-country studies in Latin America, using different data, all show adverse associations between bullying and students’ reading and math scores. Evidence from Botswana, Ghana, and South Africa back this up.
As with corporal punishment, reducing bullying can boost learning. Efforts to reduce bullying in schools in Peru showed positive, significant impacts on test scores in reading, math, and other subjects for students who had experienced bullying in the past. Other studies—in Tanzania and Rwanda, albeit not Zambia—show adverse associations between learning and more general measures of school-related violence (e.g., teachers or students report feeling unsafe at school).
We know that sexual violence is not infrequent, but few studies have examined its academic impacts. In Malawi, boys who experienced sexual violence in school had worse reading outcomes the next year; girls had worse numeracy outcomes. We need to learn more about these dynamics so that we can design the best interventions to help children, while keeping kids safe during the learning process. But our need to continue to learn doesn’t mean we should wait to act.
Despite the challenges to measuring the impact of school violence on learning and the need to continue learning, the vast majority of evidence suggests that school violence hurts learning —whether that violence is bullying from peers, corporal punishment from teachers, or sexual violence. The fact that child safety is not only a human right but also delivers concrete benefits on learning (as well as indicators of long-term child well-being) means that a wider group of stakeholders—the same stakeholders who share the World Development Report 2018’s objective of providing learning opportunities for every child—may wish to prioritize the curbing of violence in schools.