A promise kept: more than half of countries set SDG 4 national benchmarks

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), and Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report

Two years ago we argued in this blog for enhanced collaboration between national, regional and global education stakeholders based on a shared understanding of progress towards SDG 4 through benchmarks. This blog reports on the progress made.

In 2015, the Education 2030 Framework for Action called on countries to establish “appropriate intermediate benchmarks (e.g. for 2020 and 2025)” for SDG indicators, seeing them as “indispensable for addressing the accountability deficit associated with longer-term targets” (§28). This was in line with the UN Secretary General’s 2014 synthesis report, which also called for benchmarks, underlining that gauging progress, within a ‘culture of shared responsibility’, would require alignment between the four levels of monitoring of the 2030 Agenda: global, regional, thematic and national.

Why are benchmarks needed?

While global targets can be standardised, national starting points differ. Without benchmarks assigned by countries themselves, there is no agreed way to assess whether they are making sufficient progress relative to expectations. These ‘nationally determined contributions’ have been used in the climate change agenda to effectively rally countries in recent years.  The SDG 4 benchmarks bring this approach to education.

Setting SDG 4 benchmarks serves multiple objectives.

  1. It outlines the contribution that each country is prepared to make to the global agenda, given that each country has different starting points. Ideally, national benchmarks should be more ambitious than ‘business as usual’, i.e. go beyond where countries would be based on past trends.
  2. Accordingly, it will help contextualize the monitoring of progress so that it is related to what countries set out to achieve.
  3. As mentioned above, it aims to link the national, regional and global education agendas, to ensure there is coherence and mutual understanding of the different contexts.
  4. It aims to focus attention on data gaps remaining on key indicators that every education system needs for management purposes.
  5. It aims to strengthen national planning processes by instilling a stronger appreciation of including targets in sector plans.
  6. Finally, and most importantly, it aims to prompt exchanges on challenges and good practices, promote mutual learning, and provide the evidence for policy reforms and collective initiatives. This is why the benchmarking process is a key strategy that supports the data and monitoring function in the global education cooperation mechanism currently under reform.

What process was followed?

Once the SDG monitoring framework was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017, work began to select which SDG 4 indicators would be suitable for benchmarking.

  • In 2019, the Technical Cooperation Group on SDG 4 indicators endorsed seven indicators that met the criteria of policy relevance and data coverage.
  • In October 2020, the Global Education Meeting Declaration suggested to countries to ‘accelerate the progress and propose relevant and realistic benchmarks of key SDG 4 indicators’ (§10).
  • The Technical Cooperation Group worked on a process to request countries and, where possible, regional organizations to submit national benchmarks for 2025 and 2030.
  • Extensive consultations in collaboration with regional organizations in all regions held in the first half of 2021.
  • In early August, UNESCO’s Assistant-Director General for Education invited countries to submit their national benchmark values for six of the seven selected indicators: early childhood education participation; out of school rate; completion rate; minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics; trained teachers; and public education expenditure. In total, considering that these benchmarks refer to multiple education levels, each country needs to propose 19 benchmark values.

The instruction was for countries to submit target values for any year, as set in their national education sector plans.

To facilitate this exercise the UIS and the GEM Report sent a template with baseline and recent values for each indicator and each country as well as indicative values of where countries would be if they continued on average rates of progress (minimum, business as usual), or if they followed the rates of progress of the fastest one-third of countries (feasible) to serve as a basis for discussion in case where countries did not have a plan with targets, or their targets referred to other indicators.  We also collected national targets from publicly available official documents to inform individual discussions with countries; a key finding is that many countries lack targets in their education plans, which is an area that requires strengthening.

Progress towards setting benchmarks
Percentage of countries

Where do we stand?

As a result of this global mobilization, as of October 31:

  • National benchmark values had been submitted by 39% of countries. On average, 11 of the requested 19 benchmark values were submitted.
  • Another 14% of European Union and CARICOM member states committed to their respective regional targets, which have been aligned to SDG 4 for at least some indicators.
  • In addition, 10% countries had committed to submit the template in the coming weeks and months.
  • National plans yielded at least some targets for the benchmark indicators for 18% of countries.
  • About 12% of countries had plans without targets.
  • Finally, the search found that 8% of countries had no plans.

The information on submitted national benchmark values, the baseline values, and the implications for where regions and the world will be in 2025 and 2030 if these benchmarks are achieved, feature in a new observatory on benchmarks, which will be a focal point on the follow-up process. This is part of the Global Education Observatory (GEO), a new gateway to education-related data providing easy access to information for decision-making to respond to priorities. It builds on data from a range of sources to improve the monitoring of SDG4 progress and emerging policy commitments, including those related to COVID-19, and will develop further in coming months.

What are the next steps?

The UIS and the GEM Report are working on a baseline report analysing the results of this process due for release in January 2022. This will kickstart the next phase during which a range of challenges will need to be tackled.

  • A process will be outlined to help countries develop education targets where these are still missing.
  • Issues of misalignment between national and global indicators will be further discussed and common ground reached through dialogue and capacity development.
  • Benchmarks for the seventh indicator, the gender gap in completion rate, will be set.
  • Engagement with education agendas of regional organizations, which played a critical role in facilitating this process, will be strengthened.
  • The potential effect of COVID-19 on education targets will be gradually reflected in national benchmarks, as data emerge.
  • Reporting on progress towards benchmarks will become part of the global cooperation mechanism and will inform policy dialogue.

Working closely with countries on defining their ambitions and setting their own targets will go a long way to build momentum towards achieving SDG 4; it will also increase the ownership countries feel over the importance of achieving the goal while also giving us a far more realistic assessment of where we will be in 2030 than at present. Join us in congratulating countries that have taken part in the process so far.


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