Reflections as a new education era dawns

CaptureThis blog marks the start of a series in the run up to the UN Sustainable Development Summit to be held on 25-27 September.  We have some 25 days until the new goal and targets for education from now until 2030 are set in stone. Our series asks some key players and thinkers to reflect on what has been accomplished thus far, as well as their concerns as the new agenda takes hold. Here, we present some initial thoughts about the beginning of a new era for education, nationally and globally.

Scaling down ambitions

Thanks to the final outcome document already approved by Member States, we can safely say we know what to expect from the UN Summit. The broad ambition of the new education agenda is clearly apparent: for example, completing free quality primary and secondary education, universal access to quality early childhood care and preprimary education, an emphasis on learning and skill acquisition. And yet, taking a closer look at the final version, we see that final negotiations resulted in countries downscaling their ambitions in important respects.

In target 4.4, for instance, where it once called on governments to equip ‘all’ youth and adults with skills, it now asks for just ‘significant increasesA similar change has been made in 4.6, where now only a ‘substantial proportion’ rather than ‘all’ adults should have literacy and numeracy by 2030. And in target 4.c, the number of qualified teachers now should be ‘substantially increased’ rather than ensuring they are accessible to ‘all learners’. Who precisely will define whether an increase is ‘substantial’ or ‘significant’? If each and every country advances a different definition, then the basis for holding countries to account will be slippery slope of missed opportunity.

Perhaps more substantial, however, is the fact that the ambition of ‘lifelong learning’, anchoring the entire SDG on education, is being squandered. The term is not mentioned in any target or means of implementation. How can countries be expected to develop effective ‘infant to adult’ education policies when no target seriously links formal and non-formal education opportunities across the life course? An earlier formulation of the adult literacy target (4.6) referred to ‘a proficiency level in literacy and numeracy sufficient to fully participate in society’, but this has now been reduced to just calling for ‘literacy and numeracy’: an outdated conception of learning carrying less ambition.

CaptureReal progress in lifelong learning is impossible without tackling the challenge of low adult literacy levels in all countries. Yet, once again, the learning needs of adults are being treated as a low priority – donor funding for adult learning is likely to be weak or non-existent as a result. Indeed, the outcome documents of Incheon, Oslo and Addis Ababa are significant in how little they mention the education needs of adults beyond basic literacy.


Education suffered from a lack of coordination between the EFA goals and the MDGs from 2000-2015. The international community at the World Education Forum (WEF) in Incheon chose not to repeat the same mistake and avoided defining targets that might conflict with those in the UN outcome document. However, with no reference to Incheon in the outcome document of the UN Summit, we must ask if the commitments of 130 ministers at the WEF to provide ‘12 years of free, publicly funded, equitable quality primary and secondary education’ and to agree that ‘No education target should be considered met unless met by all’ now mean anything at all.

CaptureA second coordination conundrum is how different SDG sectors will work together to achieve sustainable development. If the MDGs taught us anything, it should be that working in silos will limit our ability to tackle poverty once and for all. The EFA GMR has produced two key publications to show the importance of education being included as central in efforts to achieve progress in other sectors. We await with baited breath to see how donor plans and different ministries within countries take up this fundamental coordination challenge. Our GEM Report 2016 will address this topic in order to track and encourage better cross-sectoral coordination efforts from 2015-2030.

Setting national targets

The declaration in the UN outcome document explains that ‘the SDGs and targets…are defined as aspirational and global, with each government setting its own national targets … taking into account national circumstances.’ How this will happen remains unclear, and questions the very nature of having any form of target at all.

Certainly, country contexts cannot be ignored. The GMR 2015 showed that at current rates ensuring universal upper secondary education in the next 15 years is beyond the reach of most countries. At current rates of progress, even universal lower secondary completion is not projected to be reached in low and middle income countries until the latter half of the 21st century. As BRAC has argued in a recent NORRAG report, the global targets may end up being totally abstract for those who have the furthest to travel. Will this mean the UN targets remain on a shelf and we end up with countries setting their own?

Rendering the concepts in each target into measures with realistic benchmarks will also require developing clear commonly-agreed indicators. And these must cover many new areas such as adult and higher education, TVET, non-formal education, and more. Parked within the task of monitoring the Education 2030 agenda is also the need to interpret and define the new terms recently inserted into the outcome document, notably ‘substantial’ and ‘significant’ increases. Commonly understood definitions and benchmarks are essential if we are to translate the targets into real change on the ground.


2030GoalENLast but certainly not least is the looming finance gap standing between us and a road to implementation and success. As shown by the GMR last month, there is a $39 billion finance gap every year to cover the key SDG 4 targets: from early childhood to universal entrance into upper secondary education. With no explicit financing and funding targets in either the Addis or the UN outcome documents, it is unclear how full-speed implementation will be able to get off the ground.

There does not exist a perfect world. Any process attempting to define common aims for a world-that-each-and-every-one-of-us-wants is bound to be contested. As it stands, we have an ambitious new education agenda, stretching far further than the EFA goals and challenging us all to do more to provide the skills needed to live fulfilling lives. This blog contains areas that are not yet solved, and will be worked on by many as we strive to put into practice the new agenda within the 2030 deadline. For our part, the GMR will monitor progress towards SDG4 and cover how and whether the areas in this blog are overcome in our Global Education Monitoring Report in 2016.



  1. Dear Aaron,

    Great Article. Commend the Great work you and colleagues at EFA GMR are doing.

    You have highlighted the problems. What are the solutions. If Village to Global Stakeholders do not shift focus away form problems and talking and shift focus to solutions and ACTION, is there any hope of addressing the fundamental issues raised? Can these issues raised be effectively addressed without addressing AAAA and SDG How questions? Is 3 Days of UNSDS enough to find fair answer to AAAA and SDG How questions?

    Please take a critical look at this article and share your thoughts on answers to above questions.

    Best wishes,

    Lanre Rotimi
    Director General
    International Society for Poverty Elimination /
    Economic Alliance Group.

  2. There seems to be a major concern about financing (gap of $39 billion per year…). Do we have any way of raising such funds? I have one solution -several countries -USA, France, Russia, China, Germany and the UK are major producers of arms/weapns/weapon systems – involved in the war ‘industry’ and therefore promoters of conflict around the world. Could we not have a ‘war tax’ linked to the amount of weapons produced? We already accept the ‘polluter pays’ concept, why not ‘war promoter pays’?
    These taxes are paid into a global fund that can support refugee education, inclusive education for those displaced and injured by war, rebuilding communities (including schools) after war etc.
    This would also be educational in that people would be able to see the link between production of arms, use of arms and the effects on ordinary civilians.
    Oscar Arias Sanchez President of Costa Rica (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil wars across Central America through the Esquipulas II Accord) has stated:

    “ When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach. Our international regulations allow almost three-quarters of all global arms sales to pour into the developing world with no binding international guidelines whatsoever. Our regulations do not hold countries accountable for what is done with the weapons they sell, even when the probable use of such weapons is obvious….enough said!

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