In some sports, such as golf, people get given head-starts to even up the challenge. The same has just been done for the global education goal, sustainable development goal four (SDG4), set seven years ago.
When that goal was set, the targets were the same no matter which country was involved. All countries were called on to hit 100% by 2030 in a few areas, such as out-of-school rates, or completion rates, no matter their starting point.
For the past couple of years, countries have been addressing this issue. They have taken part in an exercise convened by Unesco to contextualise those global targets to their national situation. Finally, we have realistic commitments to work with countries from now until 2030.
Research published today, on the International Day of Education, by the Unesco Institute for Statistics and the Global Education Monitoring Report, which together ran the benchmarking process with countries, gives the first real picture not of where we want to be, but of where countries expect to be. These are not projections, but declarations of ambition given by teams in ministries of education around the world.
Combining these benchmarks together in today’s report shows that, according to countries’ own expectations, we are not on track to meet SDG4 by 2030. Despite this, perhaps glum, global prognosis (which may even have to be adjusted further downwards once the medium-term consequences of Covid-19 have been assessed), there are many examples of real commitments being made.
Time for a reality check
Two regions, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Central and Southern Asia, believe they can achieve universal early childhood education. At the primary school level there is good news too. Globally, countries have signed up to say they believe they will meet or be very close to ensuring every child goes to primary school by the deadline.
Despite commitments to accelerate progress beyond the pace countries achieved in 2000 to 2015, however, this is a reality check to some of our original ambitions. In sub-Saharan Africa, even if countries will be close to the target, 8% of children of primary-school age are still predicted to be out of school in 2030, down from 19% today. Globally, countries estimate that about a third of young people still will not finish secondary school by the deadline.
Beyond ensuring children can access schools, however, the education goal SDG4 is also about learning and the extent to which students have the basic knowledge they need to succeed. By this metric, the benchmarks provide some good news. Today, only just more than half of children reach a minimum proficiency level in reading, but countries believe they can increase that to nine of 10 children by 2030. Countries still expect 84% of young people will not be able to do simple mathematics by the deadline.
This process of self-assessment is an opportunity for countries. With only a few years to go until 2030, they can reinvigorate the agenda and strengthen their commitment to the goals. Children and young people have paid an enormous price during Covid-19 by missing out on school. It is now critical to refocus efforts and invest in improving education.
But, if we can celebrate that two-thirds of countries have engaged in some way in setting benchmarks for education, we can also worry that one in three countries have not submitted any benchmarks; moreover, some of these countries may not even have any national education plans in place.
Data collection is crucial
To start, SDG4 will not be achieved unless countries step up their efforts to collect data. Better data on the numbers of children out of school, how many students complete each level of education, and how proficient they are in mathematics and reading, would allow governments to design programmes that ensure the most disadvantaged children are not left behind.
But one in two countries do not have data on reading skills at the end of lower secondary education. Fewer than half of countries report the data that is needed to monitor progress of SDG4. Some countries have not even collected any information on the number of children completing primary school for the last decade. These countries are working in the dark. We must support them to improve their ability to monitor who is being left behind and at which stage.
The second step is for all remaining countries to determine their benchmarks based on their historical trends and their national education plans, so that their strategies respond to the SDG4 targets. The ambitious agenda of SDG4 will not advance unless all member states are united by a shared education agenda.
Through this benchmark process, participating countries have sent a powerful message: they are committed to accelerating the process that began seven years ago in Paris. Thanks to the work they have done setting benchmarks, countries are no longer hiding behind a global unreachable goal: they are setting national targets and aligning them with their national plans. This is a real chance for the global education community to rally behind them and help their plans to come true.