National SDG 4 benchmarks: fulfilling our neglected commitment

By Silvia Montoya, Director of UIS and Manos Antoninis, Director of the GEM Report

Since 2017, we have been working with countries to agree national #SDG4benchmarks on a set of seven SDG 4 indicators. In October 2021, the first set of benchmarks were submitted, which we have compiled in a new report released last week for International Day of Education. Two in three countries have directly or indirectly taken part in the process. We encourage all remaining countries to engage.

Halfway to our education goal, SDG 4, these benchmarks help reinvigorate the education agenda not just for policy makers, but for all of us who are keen for the goal to succeed. They define countries’ contribution to the common SDG 4 goal; enable them to contextualize the monitoring of progress and link their national with regional and global education agendas; help strengthen national planning processes; focus attention on remaining data gaps; and contribute towards mutual learning between countries on the best way forward.

Altogether, 19 benchmark values each for 2025 and/or 2030 have been set by countries for six of the seven benchmark indicators agreed by the Technical Cooperation Group: early childhood education attendance; out-of-school rates; completion rates; gender gaps in completion rates; minimum proficiency rates in reading and mathematics; trained teachers; and public education expenditure. We will be working with countries in the first half of this year to submit benchmark values for the seventh indicator, which focuses on equity: the gender gap in upper secondary completion.

As we detailed in an earlier blog on this site, the benchmarks answer a call in the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s synthesis report in 2014 for countries to embrace “a culture of shared responsibility” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, based on “benchmarking for progress”. They follow a similar call in the Education 2030 Framework for Action, which called on countries to establish “appropriate intermediate benchmarks … for addressing the accountability deficit associated with longer-term targets”.

Where do countries expect to be by the SDG 4 deadline?

Compiling the benchmarks, as we have done in this new report, shows that, even if countries reach their benchmark values by 2030, the world will still fall short of the ambition expressed in SDG 4 – and this is before even accounting for the potential impact of COVID-19 on education systems.

Nevertheless, for several benchmark indicators (e.g. out-of-school and completion rates), countries appear to be committing to accelerate progress that is faster than the progress countries managed to achieve over 2000–15, an ambition we must all get behind.

According to their own measures, Latin America and the Caribbean and Central and Southern Asia are on course to achieve universal early childhood education. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and Western Asia, however, do not expect to achieve this goal; they estimate that roughly two in three children in these two regions will be enrolled by 2030, up from less than half currently.

According to their plans, all regions will meet or be very close to achieving universal primary education. Challenges will remain in sub-Saharan Africa, where 8% of primary school-age children are still predicted to be out of school in 2030, down from 19% currently.

By 2030, countries in sub-Saharan Africa expect to reduce the rate of out-of-school upper secondary-age youth from 47% to 31%; those in Central and Southern Asia expect to reduce their rate from 32% to 17%. In Northern Africa and Western Asia, the benchmarks show that countries believe they can reduce the rate from 28% to 14% and in Latin America and the Caribbean from 19% to 12%.

The process has delivered a reality check with regard to the goal of universal secondary education completion by 2030, which no region is on track to achieve. Completion rates are expected to land at 89% in lower secondary and 72% in upper secondary education by the deadline.

By 2030, globally, an expected 26% will still not have basic mathematics skills by Grade 3, 24% at the end of primary and 34% at the end of lower secondary education. And by 2030, globally, an expected 22% will still not have basic reading skills at the end of lower secondary education.

The percentage of trained teachers is expected to increase to over 90% in each level of education by 2030. The fastest growth is expected at the pre-primary education level, from 70% in 2015 to 94% in 2030. Still, by the deadline, it is expected that over a quarter of preschool teachers in sub-Saharan Africa will remain untrained.

While SDG 4 is unlikely to be achieved by 2030, according to countries’ own estimations, facing up to this reality by no means dilutes the agenda. On the contrary, the benchmark-setting process is the clearest indication of country commitment. It can also rally action behind the agenda. The process builds on several key moments over the course of the coming years to continue providing a reality check and to help identify common challenges to progress as well as ways of addressing them together. It serves as a stark reminder to all parties of the importance of setting national education targets and of properly financing them, particularly in the face of the difficulties brought upon the sector by COVID-19.

The next phases of this process include, among others:

By June 2022, countries need to:

  • submit benchmark values if they have not done so;
  • submit benchmark values for the seventh indicator: the gender gap in upper secondary completion;
  • revise benchmark values if they assess that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them adversely.

• An updated and extended version of this publication will be used for the SDG 4 review at the High-level Political Forum and the UN Secretary-General’s Transforming Education Summit in 2022.

• A series of regional actions will be planned, in collaboration with regional organizations where appropriate, for peer learning on key challenges ahead.

Please join us in congratulating countries that have taken part and in mobilising around the benchmarks they have set. Please also work with your country to encourage them to participate if they have not already.


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