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Are we on track for a global education goal? Reflections on the global meeting on education post-2015

published 25 March 2013 updated 25 March 2013
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This blog was originally published on the World Education Blog on March 22nd, 2013.

This week I joined 100 education experts from around the world in Dakar, Senegal, to consider the outcomes of global consultations on post-2015 education goals, organized by UNESCO and UNICEF. The wide-ranging discussions reached consensus on the importance of stressing the right to education and, crucially, on the need for post-2015 education goals to focus strongly on access and education quality, with equity cutting across both.

Participants also supported placing greater emphasis on ensuring that no country is left behind due to insufficient finance after 2015, in line with the EFA Global Monitoring Report’s recent proposals.

At the same time, as Vincent Rigby of the Canadian International Development Agency stressed, it is vital to make the case for education’s importance as a gateway to other development goals; The global education community can’t take it for granted that others will consider education as high a priority as we know it is. Gordon Brown’s opening message put this powerfully, stating that if all mothers had at least secondary education, 1.8 million children’s lives could be saved each year.

I was encouraged by the enthusiasm and high ambitions that the education community expressed during the meeting, but I was also left with some concerns. Participants could have made more progress towards ensuring that new education goals are clearly and simply stated, measurable and have equity at their heart. The EFA Global Monitoring Report team, calling on its decade of tracking the EFA goals, has identified these as essential criteria for post-2015 education goals, as I outlined in an earlier blog post.

Participants agreed that the education community needed to identify an overarching education goal that would fit within the broader post-2015 development framework, to avoid the kind of mistake made with the second Millennium Development Goal (universal primary education),which was too reductionist. The document summarizing the outcomes of the Dakar meeting proposes as an overarching goal “ equitable quality lifelong education and learning for all”. This proposal will be put forward to the Post-2015 High Level Panel, which will meet in Bali next week.

The wording appears to be a compromise aimed at resolving an emerging tension between two schools of thought in the education community. Should the focus be on the process of ensuring education quality, or on the outcome of learning? The former implies an all-encompassing goal, just as is being proposed for health in the form of a goal on universal health care. The latter is a plea for specificity, emphasized by Amina Mohammed, the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning, in her opening remarks to the meeting. The proposed goal attempts to incorporate both – in the form of “quality lifelong education” as well as “learning for all”.

Those who support “quality education” see a focus on measurable learning outcomes as too narrow, and emphasize that “learning” does not capture everything that education is about.

The other school of thought sees “quality education” as too vague and difficult to measure, which would undermine the adoption of the goal. Some also feel that such a focus is likely to divert attention from the need to ensure that all children, regardless of their circumstances, are able to learn. This concern echoes the 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report’s finding that at least 250 million children of primary school age are unable to read or write. It also underlines why it is important to identify indicators for measuring a goal early on. We present ideas for such indicators in the recent paper on potential goals that we have put forward for consultation.

The proposed goal’s reference to “lifelong education” is also troublesome. It means different things to different people, so a lot of energy would be wasted on trying to identify a common understanding of the term, and how to monitor progress towards it. We have already seen how damaging this can be for education goals and those they are meant to help: using the term “life skills” in EFA goal 3 ultimately blocked progress on this goal. Rather than using such a term, it would be clearer to refer to learning by all children, youth and adults.

Despite these concerns of clarity, simplicity and measurability, I was reassured that there is consensus on putting equity at the heart of future of education goals, with explicit mention in the proposed goal. Making equity explicit in the goal itself, as well as in the indicators and targets, is necessary to ensure we keep our promises this time around. But to achieve the desired outcomes for those who are denied the opportunity to learn because of their poverty, gender, disability or where they live, we need to put this in language that everyone can understand. This is why the EFA Global Monitoring Report team’s draft formulation of an overarching goal focuses on everyone – including all children, youth and adults – learning the basics, regardless of their circumstances.

We still have a journey to make before we reach final agreement on the wording of an overarching post-2015 education goal. But as we move forward, it is vital to continue to assess our progress in terms of these three key criteria: clarity and simplicity, measurability, and putting equity at the centre.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.