We must say what we mean when writing post-2015 global education goals

Anyone working in communications will have a few tips to hand out for writing a compelling document. Writing must be clear and concise. With no space to waste, key messages should not be repetitive without good reason. They should be written in simple language and avoid ambiguity.

These same tips must be applied to new global education goals and targets. If something is not clear, we must ask questions now, and not after 2015 when it will be too late. This is a lesson we have learnt from the vagueness of the language of the third Education for All goal on skills, which has been very difficult to track. Unclear language will let governments and donors off the hook and must be avoided at all costs.

The current wording of the overarching goal and seven targets proposed by the EFA Steering Committee contain a few crucial communications errors, which must be addressed before the wording is set in stone. Highlighted in the box below are words and phrases, which need to be clarified or defined in order to end up with a clear set of commonly understood goals and targets to drive us forward to 2030.

Let us take each of our communications tips in turn:

comms goalsRepetition – Repetition can be used to emphasize a point, but it can also take up word space unnecessarily. Take a look at the goal currently sitting in the draft: “Ensure equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030.” The words ‘equitable’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘for all’ are all included in the sentence in order to ensure that the most disadvantaged are not left behind. From an academic perspective, they capture slightly different meanings: ‘for all’ could imply addressing the average, ‘equitable’ can be measured in numerous different ways, and ‘inclusive’ tends to address one disadvantage in particular – disability. But from a non-academic perspective, they all seem to be emphasizing the same point.

The repetition in this sentence may be due to not finding a way of explaining what they mean in one word or phrase. What about: “Ensure quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030.” If you want to emphasize equity, you could add ‘without exception’.

Other targets fall prey to the same mistake as the goal. In the third target, for instance, we want to equip youth and adults with ‘knowledge, skills and competencies’, the last two of which are hard to distinguish between. In the fifth target, we’re asked to know the difference between a ‘value’ and an ‘attitude’.

Concise – Here, it’s worth looking back at the wording of the Millennium Development Goals. The first two: ‘Eradicate poverty and hunger’, and ‘Achieve universal primary education’ were clear and to the point. The concise wording of the education MDG could be argued as a factor adding to its success in relation to other more convoluted targets set in some of the Education for All goals.

The language of the new targets, meanwhile, is convoluted. Take the fourth target as an example. It gets tied up in its wording. A suggested way through part of the quagmire might be: “At least x% of youth and adults have the skills needed to obtain decent work”.

Clarity – A few terms have crept into the goals and targets, which communications professionals will no doubt hope will be cut out of the final edit. “Lifelong learning” and “Global citizenship” are buzzwords that require long explanatory footnotes. If they don’t have a meaning in their own right, they will become meaningless, and will be misinterpreted. The footnotes for ‘lifelong learning’, for instance, tell us that it does not include adult education, although on first hearing it sounds as though it would.

The obvious benefit of inventing new phrases is that we can group together numerous different clauses, but the downside is that not everyone will be party to their definitions, which is a risky game to play in this context.  We need these new goals to be universally understood, so that everyone can be held to account.

Aside from buzzwords, some of the phrases are vague. Target 1 hopes children will be “ready to learn” by the time they reach primary school. The phrase ‘relevant’ learning outcomes in Target 2 is ambiguous, as are the ‘proficiency levels’ to be reached ‘sufficient to participate in society’ in Target 3. What constitutes proficient? Asking countries to ‘progress towards’ something is not going to sign them up to achieving it. Asking them to progress towards ‘4-6%’ seems even less sure-footed. Smart objectives in anyone’s line of work do not include flexible targets.

Think of your audience

New goals must also be drivers of change. Just as with key messages rolled out to the media, or to core campaign groups, new global goals have to be worded in such a way that they can spur the world into action from 2015 to 2030. Technical, long-winded language will lose most readers. In addition, Target 6 does not refer to learners, which has left it rather uninspiring. Instead of governments providing teachers, for example, why not set a target for ‘governments to ensure all learners have access to a qualified teacher’? Given that these goals are set within a rights perspective, it might be fitting, and more motivating, to write them in this way.

As we near the end of policy tangles, it is time to think of the fine tuning of the wording of new goals and targets. Communications professionals are experienced in writing clear, concise and simple language from technical material. It would be a mistake not to consult them on the wording as the drafts become final. We want these goals and targets to be understood by everyone, from ministers to donors, teachers, learners and parents. We want anyone working on education plans, delivering classes, or deciding how to divvy up their budget to understand what we mean. Unless we say what we want as clearly as we can, we may not achieve the desired results.



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