The new education targets still need fine-tuning

The next few days are crucial for putting finishing touches on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) before they are handed over to the group who will work on the text at September’s United Nations General Assembly.  Large substantial changes are likely to no longer be possible. Small tweaks can and must still be made however, no matter how close to the wire we draw. Here are a few tweaks that we feel must be acknowledged in the next version to appear:

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1. Teachers must sit in a target of their own with an earlier deadline than 2030: It is good news that there is a target on teachers included in the text. Without hiring and training more teachers, many countries will be unlikely to ever both achieve universal primary education and maintain an acceptable standard of quality. Large classrooms and teachers with little or no training will also make it hard, if not impossible, to reach any of the other targets currently outlined in the document. However, the teacher target currently sits awkwardly alongside a target on scholarships for tertiary education students. Investing in teachers is far more in line with the overall goal of equitable quality education rather than scholarships. Here, the UN process must take note of the positioning teachers are given in the Muscat Agreement prepared by the EFA Steering Committee. Omitting to mention teachers more prominently in the EFA goals has left a global learning crisis. We must make sure not to make the same mistake again. For that reason, not only should teachers be given a target of their own but the deadline for achieving that target should be set much earlier than 2030.

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2. We need a reality check about those targets which are currently not measurable: No one is denying the importance of first setting an ambition for education post-2015 and then working out ways of measuring progress, but practical implications cannot be ignored.

Targets 4.4 and 4.6 emphasize the importance of essential skills for helping young people and adults find decent work and become responsible global citizens. Harking back to Dakar in 2000 when the EFA goals were set, however, the practicalities of measuring the goal on skills were overlooked leaving it unclear how much and where progress has been made.

Progress can be made in working out ways of measuring complex learning outcomes such as skills for decent work and global citizenship skills. But UN decision makers must be fully aware of the time it will take to finalise this thinking in a way that will allow monitoring functions such as the EFA GMR to track progress next to the targets being put in place. These targets must not be statements so much as guiding documents for governments. It is therefore crucial that a parallel motion is put in place to set up a monitoring agenda. Those setting the targets must recognise that that will entail considerable costs if it is to become both relevant and universal.

3. All actors in finance should be referred to in the targets: It is excellent to see that the UN goals now reflect the thinking arrived at by the EFA Steering Committee, and that the outline for a finance target has been set for raising the share of GDP and public spending allocated to education.  Domestic financing has huge potential to bridge the education finance gap, and UN targets will guide governments to re-structure and better manage their tax systems, as well as prioritise education, which could transform the lives of millions.

The current target only covers part of the picture however. Many low income countries still rely heavily on aid to support their education systems. While national spending provides the most important contribution, donor spending in 2012 accounted for a quarter or more of public spending on education in at least 12 countries including Liberia, Malawi and Afghanistan. Ignoring this crucial source of finance will make the implementation of some of the targets listed in the document challenging for many countries, if not impossible.

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4. The overarching goal needs to be streamlined with its targets: A large debate played out between the last version of the SDGs and the one just released over whether we should be providing or ensuring education opportunities post-2015. ‘Providing’ suggests a focus on what is inputted into an education system. ‘Ensuring’ suggests a focus on the outcome or the end result. As a consequence, the word ‘ensure’ now appears in all of the targets, but has not filtered into the overarching goal. This suggests confusion.

At the Rio +20 summit, 192 UN member states agreed on setting new goals post 2015 which would be (among other things), ‘easy to communicate‘. At present, it could easily be argued that the education goal is not that. There are three phrases in the goal now emphasizing equity, for example: ‘inclusive’, ‘equitable’, and ‘for all’. It could be argued that this extra emphasis is making the goal far more of a mouthful than it needs to be given that there is an equity specific target (4.5) and an equity specific input-oriented target (4.a) as well.

There is little time left to make changes. We all acknowledge the fairly impossible task of coming up with a draft that everyone, in every corner of the world, is happy with. Nevertheless, from a monitoring perspective, there are lessons the EFA GMR has learnt over the past fifteen years which it can and must share with those setting the new post-2015 agenda. We hope they will not fall on deaf ears.


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