So far, two in three countries have set benchmarks – or national targets – for the improvement they want to see in upper secondary school completion rates between now and 2030, the deadline for our global education goal, SDG 4. If they succeed in achieving these benchmarks, the percentage of young people completing 12 years of education around the world will rise from 51% in 2015 to 67% in 2025 and 72% by 2030. But based on past trends, only six in ten young people will be finishing secondary school in 2030. Currently, the completion rate is estimated to be at least 95% in only six countries. Will they manage it?
While our work with countries to set these benchmarks over the past five years has in itself been an valuable activity for all parties in terms of pinpointing data gaps, assessing past trends and mapping them against future ambitions, the plan was never to stop at that. Monitoring countries’ progress against the education goal in the SDG 4 agenda has not felt a fair game for a while. Back in 2015 when the goal was set, only 2% youth were completing upper secondary education in Niger and South Sudan, for instance, compared to 99% in the Republic of Korea. A level of context is always missing in monitoring global targets, that the new national benchmarks were designed to help with.
Instead of blanket assessment against one sole target, the national SDG 4 benchmarking process takes countries’ starting points and their historical progress rates into account in reviewing their education development trajectory. They have allowed us to establish the new SDG 4 Scorecard in which we evaluate country progress not by an externally set target but by the targets countries have set for themselves. For the first time, we will be able to classify – and celebrate – poor and rich countries alike for being on track to achieve their national targets.
Countries’ progress rates in education do not increase at the same speed from the start to the finish line. For upper secondary completion for instance, progress rates seem to speed up as they move closer to 50% and gradually decrease from that point onwards. Understanding these intricacies helps inform countries about where they are likely to be when we get to the deadline of our goal in eight years’ time.
For example, among countries which started with an upper secondary completion rate between 40% and 50% in 2015, the median country (represented by the grey dot) improved by 1.4 percentage points per year; in other words, a country that started from 45% could reach 52% within five years. The 25% slowest improvers (red dot) increased completion rates by 1 percentage point per year; by contrast, the top 25% improvers (yellow dot) increased completion rates by 1.8 percentage points per year.
How likely are countries to reach their targets?
The new SDG 4 Scorecard assess country progress by what is within the realm of possible for their context, expecting all the while a level of ambition to be included in their national targets. As the table below shows, only around a third are on track with their 2025 benchmarks. More countries have made slow progress (55%) than fast progress (31%) towards their upper secondary completion targets between 2015 and 2020, i.e. before the onset of COVID-19. Only among upper-middle-income countries did the same share of countries achieve high and fast progress rates (41%).
Among countries that are highly likely to achieve their benchmark (or already have a rate of at least 95%), there is one low-income (Rwanda), 7 lower-middle-income (Bangladesh, Bolivia, Egypt, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Nepal) (21%). 14 upper-middle and 12 high-income countries.
The SDG 4 benchmarks and SDG 4 Scorecard are trying to take monitoring efforts for our global education agenda in a direction that encourage countries not only to set targets but also to reflect on better targets and their links to policy. It points at countries at different income levels that have made fast enough progress to bring their 2025 national targets within reach. These countries have important experiences to share with their peers about the steps they have taken to be in that position. Please join us in opening up the spaces for such dialogue to take place so that the new monitoring mechanism can bring new energy through peer learning to the final eight years before 2030.