Education needs to fundamentally change if we are to reach our global development goals

Report cover screenshotThe new Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report by UNESCO, released this morning, shows the vast potential for education to propel progress towards all global goals outlined in the new Sustainable Development Agenda (SDGs). But, if education is to fulfill that potential and meet the current challenges facing the planet, a seismic shift is needed in policy, purpose and practice.

There are a few vital changes necessary for education to deliver on our expectations. Firstly, there is an urgent need for progress in education to speed up. If current trends continue, the world will achieve universal primary education in 2042, universal lower secondary education in 2059 and universal upper secondary education in 2084. This means the world would be half a century late for the 2030 SDG deadline.

The Report, Education for people and planet, also shows that education systems need to ensure they are giving people vital skills and knowledge that can support the transition to greener industries and find new solutions for environmental problems. Environmental concern has been decreasing in almost all countries over the past two decades. In OECD countries, almost 40% of students only have basic knowledge about the environment, for instance. But, while in the majority of countries, education is the best indicator for climate change awareness and mitigation, recent analysis shows that half of countries’ curricular frameworks did not explicitly mention ‘climate change’ or ‘environmental sustainability’ even once.

Mundiya Kepanga. Credit: Marc Dozier

Many education systems are also putting traditional knowledge systems at risk. As Mundiya Kepanga (left), a chief from an indigenous community said at our global launch event in London today, “an education that doesn’t respect cultures can teach us selfishness and greed that can destabilize our traditional structures and lead to the destruction of our environment”.  Local languages contain much of the vital information held within different cultures about the functioning of our ecosystem, yet 40% are taught in a language they don’t understand, putting that knowledge at risk.

In order to find new and innovative solutions for environmental crises, it would be a repeat of past mistakes to think that learning stops when students leave or graduate from school. Education must continue beyond the school walls, in communities and the workplace throughout adulthood. Yet currently two-thirds of adults worldwide are financially illiterate; 63% of adults in the EU never attended a non-formal education programme in a recent year; only 6% of adults in the poorest countries have ever attended literacy programmes.

There is also an urgent need for education systems to impart higher skills aligned with the needs of growing economies, where job skill sets are fast changing, many being automated. Shifting to a more prosperous, inclusive world will mean giving people the right skills for work. Yet, a third of people in the EU are currently unable to put an attachment on an email; half cannot do basic arithmetic in a spreadsheet. On current rates, by 2020, the world could have 40 million too few workers with tertiary education relative to demand. Education has to reconfigure to keep up.  The Report shows this change is vital: achieving universal upper secondary education by 2030 in low income countries would lift 60 million out of poverty by 2050.

Similarly, inequality in education, interacting with wider disparities, heightens the risk of violence and conflict. Across 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, regions that have very low average education had a 50% chance of experiencing conflict within 21 years.  The Report calls on governments to start taking inequalities seriously, tracking them with comparable surveys on education carried out house to house.

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Visit the full cartoon for the 2016 GEM Report

In short, the Report asks us all to rethink how education is organized, the contents it prioritizes and for what purposes. It reminds us all that, if we are serious about meeting our new global development agenda, we must ask much more from our education systems than just a transfer of conventional knowledge and basic skills. With such a vast responsibility, and ability to foster meaningful change, complacency in education now would be reckless. Now, more than ever, we need our schools, universities and lifelong learning programmes to focus on economic, environmental and sociocultural perspectives that help nurture empowered, critical, mindful and competent citizens.

Visit the online social media pack in six languages for the Report and share it’s key findings with your networks. 



  1. And “universal early childhood development, care, and preprimary education” — Target 4.2? Why is this constantly neglected in GEM summaries? The target, of course, is treated in the Executive Summary and the main report, but leaving it out in this blog completely — when, as usual, primary and secondary education are mentioned — simply marginalises it further.

  2. The development community always focuses on supply side of education, as is viewed by highly educated people. But it needs to enter people’s brains, according to rules set by DNA! What ought to change therefore is the DNA. And that takes years and natural selection.

    So the discussion must be on how to deliver the skills most efficiently, given the way our memory works. The rest is wishful thinking.

  3. Education has to look forward and backwards. The latter should reflect what we learnt over the centuries and how significant these have been in the progress of mankind:- from almost nothing to a level that we are today. On the other hand, future challenges should be reflected through education viz population growth, limited resources, GEMReports’ focus on Sustainable Development is very pertinent since we can save the earth and progress only through concerted efforts of all. Greediness and hidden agendas of nations should be discarded for survival.

    CEO Association for Educational Research and Development Sri Lanka (AERDSL)

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