By David Edwards, Secretary General, Education International
There is nothing uniform about the effects of the Covid-19 on nations, our education systems or on the status of our students and their teachers as we head into year three of the pandemic. That is why we must set ambitious and transparent benchmarks for education recovery now. Failing to do so risks sacrificing the global movement for equity and quality in education to resurgent calls for austerity aimed once again at the world’s poorest nations.
Seven years ago, governments of the world came together and historically committed to collectively transforming our world for the better. After years of planning and negotiations, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was born.
Thanks to advocacy efforts by Education International and others, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals included a stand-alone goal on education, SDG 4, a global commitment for governments to not only guarantee universal access to basic education but to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all.
For education to be of quality, students need quality learning environments, quality tools, and most importantly, quality teachers. Yet, at last estimates, there is a global shortage of 69 million teachers. Progress on access to education has led to increased student numbers, but unattractive working and employment conditions have caused increased attrition and not enough young people entering the teaching profession. In some contexts, untenable class sizes mean that untrained teachers are filling the gaps. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 61% of secondary teachers meet national standards on teacher training. Whilst students continue to be taught by untrained and underqualified teachers, quality education will remain elusive.
The Education 2030 Framework for Action (FFA) provides countries with guidance on how to achieve the global goal on quality education by translating the targets into concrete strategies: 184 countries and the education community committed to the essential elements of the FFA through the Incheon Declaration. The FFA underscores that to achieve the longer-term SDG targets, intermediary benchmarks are indispensable and suggests that they are set at five-year intervals, in 2020 and 2025.
Now, almost half-way through the 2030 agenda, such national benchmarks have finally been agreed upon for 2025 and 2030: 45% countries have directly submitted values based on their national plans, 13% indirectly through their regional benchmarking processes, and 8% are in the process of submitting. Altogether, two in three countries have engaged in the process so far.
As teachers, we know that students do best when we recognize them as individuals. It is individualised, rather than standardised goals and instruction that are most appropriate and effective to motivate students to achieve their full potential. Likewise, benchmarks are crucial because they enable governments to set targets that are relevant and meaningful for their specific national context.
As teachers, we also know that we must never make the mistake of allowing any student, even those that are struggling the most, to have low expectations of themselves. Every student, with the right attitude, tools, and support can achieve their goals, no matter their starting point. This is why we need countries to make ambitious SDG 4 benchmarks. With political will, even those countries currently struggling to guarantee quality education for all, can make huge strides. What’s more, a defined benchmark, and evidence of taking steps towards achieving it, is likely to engender support to make further progress towards achieving it.
However, as teachers we also know that not all students are as motivated at school as we would like them to be. There are always the students who are going through periods of being disengaged. For these students, realistic, timebound goals can be crucial. Progress can be monitored and as teachers, we can ask questions or prompt self-reflection when not enough progress is made. Likewise, national benchmarks on education mean that governments can be held to account by civil society to prioritise education.
Civil society should also engage in the benchmarking process itself. The Framework for Action calls for “establishing benchmarks…through an inclusive process, with full transparency and accountability, engaging all partners so there is country ownership and common understanding” (p. 35). I urge those countries who are yet to set their benchmarks to engage and involve key education stakeholders, including education unions.
The seven education benchmarks that governments have been asked to define include a benchmark on quality education: the percentage of teachers trained according to national standards. The emerging data on benchmark targets already set suggests we are currently on course to have over 90% of teachers trained for all levels of education by 2030.
If these benchmarks are reached, this will include an impressive increase of 24 percentage points on trained early childhood education teachers relative to 2015. Nonetheless, this conceals regional inequalities; over a quarter of early childhood education teachers in sub-Saharan Africa would still be untrained. Furthermore, many countries lack the data to track training levels at all. Shockingly 59 countries have not published any data on teacher training at the primary level for the last 8-10 years.
We are not on track to achieve SDG 4 on time, but through the establishment of benchmarks, improved collection of (and access to) data, and close monitoring, we can hold governments accountable to make tangible progress. Setting benchmarks shows governments’ continued commitment to the SDG agenda. But it must also be followed by policy reforms to implement and realise the targets.Luckily, the recipe for success for implementation is no secret: we need investment in education, investment in the teaching profession, investment in teacher training. If we are to have any hope of fulfilling students’ right to have a well-trained and highly qualified teacher, we need concrete actions from governments to increase the supply of trained teachers. We need increased access to free or subsidized teacher training programmes, including for students in hard-to-reach areas. We need high-quality training, with both pedagogical and practical components, provided by public institutions. And we need pathways for untrained teachers to upskill and remain in the profession. For all of this, we need increased education financing.
Of course, resources are critical – the make or break of our students’ futures.
UNESCO’s Paris Declaration in November went to the heart of the issue, calling, among other points, for countries to “protect and increase domestic finance for education…raise more revenues to increase education budgets through improved tax system… (and) invest in key policy priorities for recovery and accelerated progress towards SDG 4.”
That isn’t happening yet. On the contrary, the latest data shows that one in three countries are spending below both SDG 4 financing benchmarks of allocating at least 4% of GDP and 15% of total public expenditure to education. The share of education in total public expenditure in 71 countries with data has fallen from 14.1% in 2019 to 13.5% in 2021.
This is a fight worth having. The process to achieving our goals is underway and the resources needed to fund it must be claimed and put to work. It is time to #InvestInTeachers.