Education International
Education International

The Sustainable Development Goals: A renewed impetus for quality education for all

published 18 May 2016 updated 18 May 2016
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After years of advocacy, consultations and negotiations, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were finally adopted in September 2015. Education got its stand-alone goal – SDG 4. Irrespective of whether one views the final set of goals and targets with satisfaction, the agenda is ambitious in scope and reach, while agreements on financing and accountability fall woefully short of mirroring this level of ambition.

Education 2030: progress, backlash or status quo?

The cynical view is that the SDGs represent a mere reorganisation of the global must-do-list, a copy-paste-exercise with existing commitments and existing promises that will remain unfinanced despite the new packaging. Yet I would disagree: the ten targets under SDG 4 go far beyond what anyone expected would be adopted as the new blueprint for education, and there are three specific components that I want to highlight as clear steps forward.

These are things that Education International fought hard for and that we consider successes at this stage of the process. Because the first measure of success is the extent to which the agenda corresponds to the demands and needs of the peoples, and those at the centre of implementation, i.e. teachers and education workers, students and other stakeholders.

Firstly, the commitment to universal completion of free quality primary and secondary education; the promise of free secondary education in fact goes well beyond the traditional interpretation of the right to education and its aim of progressively making post-primary education free.

Secondly, the targets span from early childhood to higher education, and include targets on equity, safe learning environments and qualified teachers. The latter two are so-called means of implementation targets (SDG targets 4.a-c) and an important recognition of what has to be in place for the overarching goal to be reached at all.

Finally, the agenda obliges countries to look at the content of the education they provide and integrate elements of human rights, sustainable development, global citizenship, and gender equality, inter alia.

Key here is the question of what a global agenda can and should do. To me, the point of the global agenda is to set a direction and agree on a common minimum standard in the field of education. The agenda obliges member states to carefully consider the targets and discuss what concepts such as equitable, free and quality mean in their context, and find ways of operationalizing them at national level. What does free education mean in today’s world, and what are indicators of quality, or relevant and effective learning outcomes? These are things that shouldn’t be set in stone at global level, but discussed in dialogue with all stakeholders at national level. That in itself is sustainable educational development.

The indicators as conditionality 2.0

The challenge with a global agenda is that it has to be monitored at global level too. It is impossible to develop satisfactory indicators for fluffy targets without adding some specificity, or by focusing on a particular aspect of the target, and it is difficult to do that without also changing the meaning of the target. Yet, each target will have one indicator that is tracked at the global level, accompanied by national, regional and thematic indicators.

There is generally speaking a clear preference for outcomes indicators and in the case of education, for learning outcomes. The target on free primary and secondary education (SDG 4.1) will be tracked by an indicator on learning outcomes in reading and mathematics in grades 2/3 and at the end of primary and lower secondary.

In this case, learning outcomes become a proxy as well as a composite for completion, for free, equitable, quality education and for relevant and effective learning outcomes, which effectively means that the focus of analysis shifts from the performance of the state to that of the individual students. This is symptomatic of the tendency to perceive problems through the narrow lens of the individual, ignoring structural concerns and the responsibilities of duty-bearers. Importantly, it is therefore difficult to know what any change in results is due to, as inputs to the system are not given adequate attention. Has the goal of equitable and inclusive quality education been reached once all children are in school, or once all children enjoy the same level and extent of quality education? Neither would – or should – result in exactly the same learning outcomes. What you need to measure is both the enjoyment of the right by rights-holders, and the degree of compliance with human rights obligations of states.

I am yet to meet a teacher or a student activist that sees the lack of a global metric for learning as the biggest problem in education. Learning outcomes are not synonymous with quality education, nor is measurement in itself a solution to the lack of learning that has been reported over the past years (one recalls here the widely-reported figure of the 250 million primary school age children that are unable to read or write). The indicator is not a technical necessity but a political choice, and the UIS is already calling for “ a single measure of reading and mathematics that is carried out in all countries”. What does such a single measure mean for individual countries’ ability to design relevant and sustainable national education systems? And what does it mean for countries that traditionally have been dependent on aid?

Beggars can’t be choosers

The lack of sufficient financing is one of the main reasons for needing a new set of global goals in the first place, yet the SDGs come without any financing commitments. What has changed is the attribution of responsibilities; poorer countries are expected to sort out their own financing and the private sector is being given a big role in the new agenda. Member states that are keen to cut costs turn to the private sector as the saviour of not only education but of development as a whole.

The rush over recent years to get as many children in school as soon as possible led to a diversification of provision, and, in many cases to systems that couldn’t keep up with the expansion, and, thus, education of a lower quality. Quality and equity being at the centre of the new agenda can, at least in part, be seen as a consequence of this. Unfortunately, member states refused to learn the part of the lesson that pointed to public provision of education as key to both equity and quality.

Despite a broad civil society alliance, our efforts to secure an explicit commitment to public education failed, and so did efforts to protect public services from privatisation and public-private partnerships. Indirectly, the new agenda encourages private-sector participation in education: for instance, the investment by the UK Department for International Development in private, fee-paying profit-making education will be understood and treated as UK contribution to the SDG implementation. Apart from the obvious equity concerns, this also discourages national investment in public education and, thus, the building of strong national systems.

While research clearly has shown the positive effects of abolishing tuition fees on primary school enrolment, and this was something that supported our advocacy on free primary and secondary education throughout the post-2015 process, there seems to be a lack of research on the impact of private sector participation in education. We desperately need more research on the impact of private provision on equity and quality, on the working conditions of teachers, on communities, and on the policy-making itself.

The missing A-word

The breadth and ambition of the SDGs is compromised by the lack of accountability mechanisms; neither states nor the private sector are held to account within the SDGs framework. In the negotiations, member states refused to use the term accountability and eventually ended up referring to follow-up and review. Eager not to repeat the failures of MDG 8, member states talked about a renewed global partnership to ensure the success of the SDGs. But what looked to be heading towards a partnership between governments quickly turned into partnerships in plural, mainly referring to different forms of partnerships with the private sector.

The indicators are supposed to help us in this regard, and the first battle will be the formulation of national-level indicators. These are a great opportunity to expand on – and challenge – the global indicator framework, and identify context-relevant indicators that support the development of national education systems. This process must be inclusive, as must the monitoring mechanisms.

What the SDGs need are human rights-based indicators that strengthen accountability by tying the targets to a binding rights framework. These indicators measure the extent to which states fulfil their human rights obligations, which reveal weaknesses and failures of the system and, thus, support the improvement of public policy. Again, this is about the sustainability of education systems.

At the same time, the question is not only how but by whom the success of the agenda is measured. Another positive aspect of the inclusive and participatory process to formulate the new agenda is the ownership by civil society, and their expectations to remain involved, take stock of progress and to hold governments to account.


Again, the cynic would say that nothing has changed with the adoption of the new agenda; we will keep fighting for the right to education to be realised, for decent work and labour rights of teachers and education workers.

At the same time, in a meeting room in Dakar a couple of months ago, the Directors of Planning of the Ministries of Education in West and Central Africa discussed the new education targets and ways of integrating them into their respective education plans. Their exchange on concepts, levels of ambition, and strategies for implementation made clear that Education 2030 is giving a renewed impetus to member states – and to all those of us fighting for quality education for all. It obliges us to revise and update strategies and plans, to engage in a dialogue on policy priorities, to formulate indicators, and to agree on monitoring mechanisms.

What has not changed, however, is the sad state of education financing, and here analysis and advocacy is sorely needed. The consequences of private sector participation in the education sector, as well as the different forms of public-private partnerships will have to be carefully examined. This is closely linked to questions of quality but also of ever-increasing inequality in the world and the need to make sure that we have the data and the tools we need to understand equity and equality in education.

Unfortunately, the new agenda also brings a new emphasis on learning outcomes and a curious shift towards learning outcomes as the indicator of equity. Learning outcomes alone must not dictate the policy discussion about inequity in education; equity is also about all students enjoying the same levels of safety in learning environments, quality of education and qualifications of teachers, and quality and relevance in teaching and learning materials, just to mention but a few of the factors that have to be examined.

These are issues that we must not leave at the wayside if we are to ensure that SDG 4 marks a step forward not only in its ambition and relevance but also in the realisation of genuinely sustainable development and in meaningful accountability of states for delivering the agenda. Unless we are careful, the opportunity will be missed, and we will all find ourselves simply in the learning outcomes business.

Note: This article is an adaptation of a previous article published in CIES Perspectives, Winter 2016.