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Goal 4: Education - Sustainable Development Goals

At the UN Sustainable Development Summit (New York, 25-27 Sep. 2015) a new development agenda was adopted for 2015-2030. From 8 Millennium Development Goals and 21 targets - some of which were not met (see MDG 2015 Report) - we move towards 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets - "Ending poverty plus 16 other goals", as some put it.
Over the past 25 years educational aspirations reflected in global goals moved from basic education for children, youth and adults - Education for All (EFA) 1990-2000-2015 - to primary education for all children (completing four years of primary school) - Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 2000-2015 - to access to quality education at all levels, including higher education, and lifelong learning opportunities for all - Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2015-2030. It is considered that the latter introduces a paradigm shift, described as "Moving from quantity to quality". (See EFA, MDG and SDG education goals in this table).

In fact, in September 2016, one year after the SDGs were approved, UNESCO announced that the new global education goals will not be met in 2030 (Global Education Monitoring Report 2016). If current trends persist, universal primary education will be achieved in 2042, universal lower secondary education in 2059 and universal higher secondary education in 2084. 

I wrote the text below in 2015, when the SDGs were approved.

I analyze here Goal 4 - "Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning" - and its 10 targets. The targets include all levels of education, technical and vocational skills, youth and adult literacy, gender equality, education for sustainable development, scholarships, education facilities, and teacher training. They are centered around formal education. The overall aspiration is more schooling, 12 years (primary and secondary education) considered the minimum this time. Free and quality are key additions; the word quality is reiterated in every target. Again, references to early childhood and adulthood are particularly weak. Lifelong learning is mentioned but with a secondary role, far from the status of a new education paradigm for the 21st century proposed by UNESCO.

Is it realistic to expect that ambitious education goals will be achieved by 2030 when much more modest goals were not achieved in 25 years of Education for All and 15 years of Millennium Development Goals?

After reading Goal 4 and its targets one wonders what are the lessons learned over the past 25 years of global goals and international initiatives for education. Where are the problems, contradictions, power struggles, education complexities?

Money is considered the main obstacle; however, as we know, education is one of those fields where how is spent is more important than how much is spent, and where money alone does not guarantee good policies or rapid, sustainable, change.

We find also the usual translation problems (English-Spanish).

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.
Just one-third of countries have achieved all the measurable Education for All (EFA) goals. - See more at:

Main findings

  • Just one-third of countries have achieved all the measurable Education for All (EFA) goals.
  • In 2012, 121m children and adolescents were still out of school, down from 204m in 1999.
  • Half of countries have now achieved Universal Primary Enrolment and 10% more are close.
  • Poorest children are five times more likely not to complete primary school than richest.
- See more at:

Inclusive and quality remain strange and confusing terms for the majority of the population worldwide. Their interpretations and uses differ considerably even within the specialized education community. The same occurs with lifelong learning, a concept not fully understood and incorporated by the education community so far. All this must be kept in mind when communicating the Quality Education Goal in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Lifelong learning (LLL) is mentioned as separate from education. (In fact, many people confuse LLL with adult, out-of-school, or informal learning). LLL focuses on learning, goes "from womb to tomb", and includes formal education. Therefore, LLL should not be considered an addition but an embracing concept that includes all targets of Goal 4. 

■ By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.

» This target is the first one in the list and is the most important one within Goal 4. Most financial efforts will probably be devoted to this target.

» It is important to remember that:
- Education for All (1990-2015) adopted six basic education goals, aimed at "meeting basic learning needs" of children, youth and adults, in and out of school. According to the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), basic education comprises primary education and lower secondary education. The six goals were not me in 25 years, and remained as "unfinished business".
- The Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) proposed Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education ('primary education' understood as 4 years of schooling; no mention of free or quality). In 15 years, this modest goal was not met.

» In the final phase of EFA and of the MDGs a "global learning crisis" was acknowledged: after four years of schooling millions of children worldwide are not learning to read, write and do basic math.

» With this experience in mind, is it realistic to think that "free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education" with "effective learning outcomes" are attainable in the next 15 years? In the push for 'universal secondary education', won't we repeat the same - and worse - problems than those faced in the push for 'universal primary education'?.

girls and boys" may not be a realistic goal for many countries.

Not all is about money. Latin America's high school drop out should be taken into account: nearly half of young Latin Americans leave high school, mainly because of lack of interest and lack of purpose. In a region with historical high primary education enrollment rates, secondary education is viewed today as a major bottleneck.

In today's world children are not the only ones attending primary and secondary education; in many countries, completion of primary and secondary education is being offered to young people and adults (second chance education programmes). Targets and indicators related to youth and adults (see below) might also incorporate primary and secondary education.

■ By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

Early childhood development, care and pre-primary education are important not to prepare children for primary education, but to better prepare them for learning (in and out of school) and for life. This debate has been going on for decades. For some reason, the SDGs decided to adopt the instrumental, school-oriented approach to early childhood development and education. We can only hope that the indicators do not reinforce the 'school preparedness' trend.

■ By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.

"Affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education" is hard to find in most countries around the world. Can you ensure access to something that, in many cases, will take much longer than 15 years to be in place? Again, all will have to be translated into a more realistic quantitative goals depending on each country.

■ By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.

See comments to previous target.

It is difficult to agree on the "relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and enterpreneurship" that can be considered universal and useful in any context. Certainly, and given the weaknesses of the school system and of basic education, some of them will have to do not with "technical and professional skills" but with basic learning needs such as oral expression, and reading and writing properly and autonomously.

■ By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.

 » Again: women, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities are put together, in the "vulnerable" category. However, their vulnerabilities - and the ways they are discriminated - are very different and specific.

It is time to consider equality, not juts parity - access and enrollment. Disparities are expressed in many areas: retention, repetition, roles played, expectations, learning outcomes, study and career options, etc.

» To be considered: in Latin America, education discrimination against indigenous peoples is stronger and more systematic than discrimination against girls/women. In other words: racism is stronger than machismo.

■ By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.

» Youth and adult literacy is historically the least successful global education goal and remains a critical challenge worldwide (781 million illiterates, the usual two thirds represented by women). The challenge includes sound policy and goal formulation. "Achieving literacy and numeracy" remains a highly ambiguous notion. When can we say that someone has achieved literacy and numeracy? (It may be useful to describe clear competencies within this target).

"Substantial proportion of adults" needs to be translated into a percentage that makes the goal not only achievable but successful.

■ By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

Clearly, promoting sustainable development is not only about knowledge and skills. The most developed, educated and informed countries in the world are the ones that contaminate the most. On the other hand, indigenous peoples preserve the planet.

The description of knowledge and skills considered necessary is vague. In any case, acquiring them requires not only education but also information and communication efforts; not only the school system but also indigenous knowledge and practice, non-formal learning and informal learning at home, in the community, through the media and the internet, in the workplace, etc.

■ Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.

» It is important to highlight the need to differentiate and respond to specific realities and needs, rather than to homogenize. Need to add mention of facilities that are sensitive to different cultures (there are various cultures within a country - countries that are multiethnic and pluricultural, and as a result of migration processes). This is not covered by child, disability and gender sensitivity.

■ By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrollment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.

South-South cooperation and exchange are essential. So-called 'developing countries' are highly heterogeneous. Many such countries are in a condition to offer scholarships and exchange programmes that may be more relevant to other 'developing countries' than those offered by 'developed' ones.

■ By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states.

It is revealing that the target devoted to teachers appears last in the list (following scholarships, education facilities, etc.).

It is fundamental to deepen the understanding and the debate - globally and in each national context - on the issue of teachers, teacher education and teacher quality. Qualified teachers and quality teachers may not necessarily be the same thing. Training is only one factor of quality teaching. Poor teacher training is very common and ineffective. Becoming a good teacher depends on character, vocation, school background, appreciation for learning, for reading and for experimenting, quality of teacher education and of teachers' working and learning conditions. There are many old conceptions and misconceptions on what good teacher and good teaching are. 

» The teacher is a key factor in the quality of school education, but not the only one. The whole responsibility cannot be placed on teachers. All evaluations of student learning in school reiterate the critical role of poverty and of overall families' socio-economic conditions. Improving the learning conditions of the poor implies improving them both in and out of school (health, nutrition, well-being, lack of fear, affection, care, play, sleep, etc.).

Related texts in OTRA∃DUCACION

Aprendizaje a lo largo de la vida
De alumno a aprendiz
Mujeres, indígenas y discapacitados
Ojo con traducciones y traductores
Madre Tierra
Sumak Kawsay: Voces y saberes de la Amazonía ecuatoriana
¿Mejorar la educación para aliviar la pobreza? ¿O aliviar la pobreza para poder educar?
¿Atraer los mejores estudiantes para la docencia?
Sobre aprendizaje de jóvenes y adultos | On youth and adult learning
Escolarizado no es lo mismo que educado
1990-2030: Global education goals | Metas globales para la educación
Educación para Todos y Objetivos del Milenio no son la misma cosa (entrevista) 
Calidad educativa: ¿infraestructura, tecnologías y docentes?
Education First | La educación primero 
¿Educación a lo largo de la vida para el Norte y educación primaria para el Sur? | Lifelong Learning for the North, primary education for the South?
International Initiatives for Education | Iniciativas internacionales para la educación
What did the Millennium Development Goals achieve?
Formal, non-formal and informal learning


Educación Primero ▸ Education First

Rosa María Torres

(English text below) 

 La Educación ante Todo - Una nueva iniciativa global 

"Una iniciativa para asegurar a todos una educación de calidad, relevante y transformadora"  

La Educación ante Todo (traducción oficial de "Education First") es el nombre de la nueva iniciativa mundial para la educación lanzada por el Secretario de Naciones Unidas, Ban Ki-Moon, en Nueva York, el 26 de septiembre de 2012, con oportunidad de la 67 Sesión de la Asambea General de la ONU.

La Educación ante Todo asume tres prioridades para los próximos cinco años: (a) todo niño en la escuela, (b) mejorar la calidad de la educación, y (c) fomentar la ciudadanía global, a fin de desarrollar "la comprensión, las habilidades y los valores necesarios para cooperar en la resolución de los desafíos intercontados del siglo 21". La iniciativa identifica 10 accciones claves para que los países logren un cambio significativo en la educación.

La ONU cuenta para ello con la participación y el aporte financiero de gobiernos, agencias internacionales y comunidad empresarial. Se lanzó con más de 1,5 billones de dólares ya comprometidos para su ejecución. Se estima que se requerirán 24,000 millones de dólares por año para universalizar la educación primaria y secundaria en el mundo.

La idea es colocar a la educación como una prioridad mundial y acelerar el progreso de los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio (2000-2015) y específicamente el Objetivo 2: "Lograr la enseñanza primaria universal" y su correspondiente Meta: "Asegurar que, en 2015, los niños y niñas de todo el mundo puedan terminar un ciclo completo de enseñanza primaria" (el indicador es, en verdad, "supervivencia al quinto grado"). En esa misma dirección apunta Completar la Escuela, otra reciente inciativa mundial lanzada en 2010 por UNICEF y el Instituto de Estadística de la Unesco (UIS), focalizada en 25 países, y cuyo objetivo es "Todos los niños en la escuela en 2015". 

Todo indica que varios de los ODM no se cumplirán para el año 2015. En lo que respecta a la educación, se reconoce que "las esperanzas son cada vez más débiles de que en 2015 se logre la educación universal, a pesar de que muchos países pobres han hecho tremendos avances". Más aun, Naciones Unidas alerta que, "sin un gran esfuerzo, existe el peligro real de que en 2015 más niños estén fuera de la escuela que hoy". ¡Nótese que ni siquiera se mencionan la calidad y los aprendizajes!

Dado que "la gran mayoría de los niños que no finalizan la escuela están en África subsahariana y el Sur de Asia", tanto los ODM como La Educación ante Todo ponen el acento en estas subregiones. Una región como América Latina y el Caribe, con una tasa relativamente alta de matrícula en educación primaria, con excepción de unos pocos países, no califica como prioridad en términos de acceso a la escuela pero ciertamente sigue teniendo una vieja agenda pendiente en términos de calidad de la educación y de una educación orientada hacia el desarrollo de la ciudadanía, en primer lugar a nivel nacional antes que global.

Llama la atención que en su lanzamiento público esta nueva iniciativa de la ONU no haga referencia a la Educación para Todos - EPT, la iniciativa mundial para la educación coordinada por la UNESCO, lanzada en 1990 en Jomtien, Tailandia, y cuyas metas también vencen en el 2015. Las seis metas de la EPT - mucho más amplias que la meta de educación de los ODM - incluyen no únicamente educación primaria sino educación básica para niños, jóvenes y adultos, desde el desarrollo infantil y la educación inicial hasta la educación básica de jóvenes y adultos. Esas metas no se cumplieron en el año 2000, según se evaluó en el Foro Mundial de Educación reunido en Dakar, donde se postergó precisamente el plazo hasta el 2015. El Informe Global de Seguimiento de la EPT 2012 fue claro en advertir que muchos países no alcanzarán tampoco dichas metas. ¿Tendrán las Naciones Unidas y el mundo que admitir, otra vez, que las metas de la Educacion para Todos no se han cumplido después de 25 años - un cuarto de siglo - de ejecución y monitoreo permanente? 

Cualquier agenda post-2015 para la educación debe hacerse cargo de estos hechos y hacer una reflexión colectiva en torno a las dinámicas políticas, económicas, sociales, culturales, institucionales e interinstitucionales, que han llevado a estos resultados. No más de lo mismo. Es indispensable introducir cambios profundos hacia el futuro y repensar la educación y el aprendizaje de cara a las nuevas realidades y al emergente paradigma del Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida.

 Education First - A new global initiative 

"An initiative to ensure quality, relevant and transformative education for everyone"

Education First is the name of the new Global Initiative for Education led by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, BAN Ki-moon, and launched in New York on Sep. 26, 2012, with the opportunity of the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly.

EF has established three priorities for the next five years: a) putting every child in school, b) improving the quality of education, and c) fostering global citizenship, so as to develop "the understanding, skills and values they need to cooperate in resolving the interconnected challenges of the 21st Century." EF identifies 10 key actions that can help nations achieve a breakthrough in education.

The initiative counts with the participation and financial collaboration of governments, donors and the business community. At its launch, over US$1.5 billion had already been committed. It is estimated that an additional 24 billion dollars are needed annually in order to ensure universal primary and secondary education. 

The idea is to make education a top global priority and boost progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) and specifically Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education and its target: "Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling" (four years of schooling, the indicator being "survival to grade five).

Everything indicates that several MDGs will not be met by the 2015 deadline. As for education, it has been acknowledged that "hope dims for universal primary education by 2015 even as many poor countries make tremendous strides." Moreover, if current trends continue and "without a major effort, there is a real danger that more children will be out-of-school in 2015 than today." Let us note that the quality of education is not even mentioned!

Given that "Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia are home to the vast majority of children out of school", both MDGs and Education First place an emphasis on those subregions. A region such as Latin America and the Caribbean, which has overall high primary education enrollment rates, except for a few countries, does not qualify as a priority in terms of access, but has certainly a pending agenda in terms of improving the quality of education and fostering citizenship - national citizenship in the first place.

Let us remember that the year 2015 marks the deadline not only for the MDGs but also for Education for All (EFA), the global education initiative coordinated by UNESCO that was launched in 1990 in Jomtien, Thailand. EFA's six goals are far more comprehensive and ambitious than the MDG education goal. They comprise not only primary education but basic education for all, including early childhood development, and youth and adult basic education. The goals were not met by 2000, when the World Education Forum was convened in Dakar to evaluate EFA results over the 1990-2000 decade, and the deadline was postponed for 15 additional years, until 2015. At this point, it is clear that many countries will not meet EFA goals by 2015 either, as highlighted by the 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report. Will the UN and the world have to admit, once again, that EFA has not been achieved after 25 years - one quarter of a century - of continued implementation and monitoring?

Any post-2015 agenda for education must acknowledge these facts and make a thorough collective analysis around the dynamics - political, economic, social, cultural, institutional and interinstitutional- that have led to such results. Not more of the same. It is necessary to introduce major changes vis á vis the future, and to rethink education and learning in accordance with the world's new realities and the emerging Lifelong Learning paradigm. 

To learn more / Para saber más:
UNESCO, Education for All Movement (EFA)
▸ UNESCO, World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), EFA, 2012
UNESCO, Education Milestones
UIL-UNESCO, Lifelong Learning policies and strategies
Education First: The United Nations Secretary General's Initiative [infographic]
UN and Civil Society, The World We Want 2015


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