After Dakar: How does adult learning fit into post-2015 education aims?

Language education for adults at KAN in Amsterdam. (Photo: Sake Rijpkema © UNESCO)
Language education for adults at KAN in Amsterdam. (Photo: Sake Rijpkema © UNESCO)

By Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education

When education policymakers overlook the importance of adult learning, it doesn’t just let down adults who could benefit from a greater commitment to their needs. It also fails to exploit a key argument for education’s central place in the wider development agenda. Both omissions were on show last month at the global meeting on post-2015 education aims in Dakar, Senegal.

Anyone looking at the wording of the proposed post-2015 education goal agreed at the Dakar meeting would think that the learning needs of adults were well recognized:Equitable quality lifelong education and learning for all” covers a commitment to lifelong learning, and for everyone. However, the document summarizing the consultation event failed to mention the learning needs of adults, despite the insistence by participants that all phases of education– from early years to adult life – are intimately connected.

Our new online hub for resources and other updates on education post-2015 gathers links to proposals from around the world.
Our new online hub for resources and other updates on education post-2015 gathers links to proposals from around the world.

At the same meeting it was lamented that education had been overlooked at the Bali High-Level Panel meeting on the broader post-2015 development agenda in March. But no one was putting two and two together.

However effectively educators resolve internal debates about priorities among themselves, they are failing to persuade the rest of the development community of the key role education plays in the wider development process.  Yet it is clear that progress on HIV/AIDS, clean water and sanitation, democratic participation, maternal deaths and the survival of small children all involve adults understanding the issues and changing behaviour.

As well as being a powerful catalyst in the achievement of other goals, adult learning is a fundamental human right. Despite the Education for All process, 775 million adults still lack literacy skills, two in three of whom are women – a reduction of just 12% since 1999, whereas the EFA target was a 50% reduction. And since we know that children do better in school when their mothers read and write, ignoring adult literacy has an impact on young people too.

imageIt was made clear at Dakar that successor targets to the Education for All goals will be adopted at the World Education Conference in South Korea in spring 2015. One of them should be to secure universal literacy by 2030, with the number of adults without literacy halved in every country by 2020, and halved again five years later, with an immediate priority given to eradicating the gender gap in access to literacy.

The International Council for Adult Education also believes that with 9 in 10 adults in sub-Saharan Africa and India working outside the waged economy, targets for skills training for workers in subsistence economies should be developed.

Out of the six Education for All goals established in 2000, adult learning has received the least attention. At the heart of this failure was the difficulty in measuring. We need regular household surveys backed by disaggregated data, so that the needs of poor and underrepresented groups can be clearly identified. There is a key role for civil society in using data generated to identify groups missing out on development, and to advocate with and for them.

So far the process leading to new global development goals is profoundly opaque. There are lots of places to say what you think, but no clarity at all about how agendas are to be decided. Advocacy for impoverished organisations defending the interests of the global poor deserve better. We need transparent processes to know when and where to make a fuss. After Dakar, and despite the generous and open nature of its debates, I am no clearer about how best we should go about defending adult learners’ interests.

Alan Tuckett is president of the International Council for Adult Education and a visiting professor at the universities of Nottingham and Leicester.



  1. Hello Dr. Tucker,
    Your blog gives the impression that if taught, the adults illiterates will actually learn to read fluently and use their new skill to benefit economically. But about what % of adults have become fluent and permanent readers in literacy classes anywhere in the world over the decades? You probably know the truth. Do you have different methods or research to give fluency to, say 10, 25, 50% of illiterates?
    Please contact me to discuss ideas
    Helen Abadzi
    Senior Education Specialist, Global Partnership

  2. Many of the 750,000 people who lack literacy skills are likely to be people with disabilities who have been deprived of their right to education for decades. Even now, one third of the 61 million out of school children have a disability.

    130 countries have now ratfied the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which means they are committed in international law to provide access to inclusive education for adults as well as children.

    The post 2015 MDGs will probably extend Education for All from primary to mid-secondary education but adult education has not featured in the many e-discussion groups generated by the UN. NGOs and civil society in all countries need to ensure that Education for All becomes a reality by starting a campaign to put pressure on their governments to take action – is a good example of what can be achieved by an internet campaign.

  3. * Progress is even more worrisome if we consider the whole EFA experience, starting in 1990 in Jomtien, Thailand (World Conference on Education for Alll). Literacy statistics presented by the EFA Forum prior to the Jomtien conference referred to 895 million illiterates in the world (15 years +). Almost 25 years later, the number has been reduced to 775 million. “2/3 of them are women” remains the same.

    * It would be wrong to assume that adult illiterates are mostly people with disabilities!! In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, illiteracy remains concentrated in indigenous groups and the elderly. Indigenous groups are not disabled, just abandoned, neglected for centuries.

    * In short literacy campaigns or programmes it is in fact difficult to prepare autonomous, proficient readers and writers (just as it is difficult to expect autonomous readers and writers after four years of schooling, in the case of children). Literacy is not an easy and short term endeavour. It requires longer education interventions and, most important, exposure to reading and writing environments, experiences and materials.

    I have worked on child and adult literacy issues for over 30 years, organized a national literacy campaign and participated in several literacy programmes in many parts of the world. Over the past 15 years I have been working on Lifelong Learning, viewing child and adult learning as a continuum. In my blog OTRAEDUCACION you may find several related texts, most of them in Spanish, some in both Spanish and English.

    Regards, Rosa Maria Torres

  4. It’s time serious research is done on adult literacy. The field has been essential ly abandoned because programs give poor results. And it has also been neglected in terms of serious thinking regarding effects. There is evidence that adults cannot easily automatize new alphabets. Innovative thinking and some political daring is needed to confront this reality and fund neurocognitive research to improve outcomes. Otherwise these emotional statements of concern will continue while donors fund something else.

  5. My concern is that national campaigns to achieve adult literacy should include disabled people from the beginning. They have the same basic human right to literacy as any other citizen but their needs are often overlooked, with the excuse that there are no data. Their right to education and citizenship is now estabished in international law.

  6. The number of illiterates, 775 million, is a staggering number. Although they are mostly vulnerable persons the traditional education is the input the bureaucracy attempts to provide them. What is relevant would be to provide these staggering numbers an education that wold be directly of use in their day to day life. This is why the vulnerable shy the traditional education what they want is competencies to live better and enjoy a quality of life and not skills in the three R s alone. This missing link seemingly is the the critical obstacle. Till such time in what is served is not changed radically illiteracy will remain an unsolved problem and a nightmare to the world at large.

    .Dr. S.B. Ekanayake
    former Basic Education Adviser UNESCO/UNHCR Central Asia

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