Ensuring the Relevance of any International Education Agenda Beyond 2015

by Sobhi Tawil.

© UNESCO

As we approach the target date set for Education for All (EFA) and education-related MDGs, global and (UN-led) national processes are being initiated to review experience thus far and to begin defining the possible shape of the post-2015 development and education agenda(s). In doing so, it is important to start by highlighting the issue of the global relevance of the international education agenda set for 2015.

The MDG framework adopted in 2000, only several months after the adoption of the EFA Dakar Framework for Action the same year, not only challenged EFA as the sole reference for educational development at the global level, but also narrowed the international education agenda to universal primary education (UPE) and gender equality (narrowly equated with parity). Indeed, the narrower MDG focus resulted in a neglect of a broader vision of EFA that encompasses – within its vision of basic learning – early childhood care and education, youth and adult literacy, vocational skills development, as well as concern for the improvement of the quality and relevance of basic learning. With the narrower education-related goals defined within the comprehensive international MDG framework, the perceived relevance of the international education agenda for middle and upper-income countries began to wane as many of these countries had achieved or were close to achieving the education-related MDG goals.

In addition, the dynamics of international cooperation have significantly changed in the past decade with a multiplication and diversification of development partners and a proliferation of NGOs, foundations, philanthropists and multilateral aid agencies and funds, as well as emerging donors introducing new patterns of South-South and triangular cooperation. In attempting to define any international educational agenda post-2015, it would appear important to acknowledge the diversity of development situations worldwide and the specific challenges they pose for education in different types of context.

In considering relevance of an international agenda post-2015, there are several strands of discussion within the current context of review of the MDG experience 2000-2015 that relate to the format and content of the post-2015 international development agenda, and the ways in which these are inter-related. These considerations also apply to the international education agenda and to the EFA framework.

In terms of process, some of the discussion has to do with the usefulness of setting targets at the international level on the grounds that such ‘one-size fits all’ global targets may be considered to be of greater or lesser relevance to countries depending on their specific development challenges. EFA Goal 6 is a good case in point. Indeed, meaningful targets for this overall goal aimed at “improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills” can arguably only be realistically set at the national level. This is grounded in the assumption that each country has its own evolving conceptualization of the quality of education in terms of the performance of the system and the relevance of learning in specific development contexts. It is these conceptualizations that would constitute the most appropriate bases for national target-setting and subsequent selection of indicators to monitor progress in the realization of the overall goal of “improving all aspects of the quality of education”.

Moreover, the experience of global-target setting within the MDG and EFA experience since 2000 has encouraged reporting of aggregate national data thereby masking the extent of inequality and disparity within countries. If our concern is with equity and our focus on reducing the observed trend towards widening inequalities worldwide – and resulting exclusion from the benefits associated with positive societal development – then national target-setting would allow for the reporting of much more disaggregated data beyond traditional factors of discrimination such as gender and urban/rural residence.

Indeed, the need to monitor national progress on educational goals through more disaggregated data relates to a second dimension of the discussion on the MDG experience since 2000 which has to do with the focus on outcome indicators. With a combined concern for equity and improved quality of education, interest has gradually shifted to a focus on the results of educational processes in terms of levels of learning outcomes, as well as their social distribution. Seeing the international education agenda as an unfinished one, a focus on learning and on what is actually learnt (knowledge, skills and competencies), rather than on mere participation in educational processes, is also based on the recognition of the limits of traditional proxy indicators – such as pupil/teacher ratios, share of qualified teachers, and mean years of schooling – in gauging the quality of learning and the contribution of education to inclusive and equitable development.

However, caution needs to be exercised in relation to the recent emphasis on learning, and the corollary interest in large-scale assessments of learning outcomes, as is being promoted by a range of international development partners. The World Bank Education Strategy 2020, for instance, views “learning gains as a key metric of quality” overlooking the fact that current large-scale assessments only measure a limited range of cognitive skills. In addition, it may be argued that learning assessments should necessarily be grounded in local contexts and needs, if they are to be relevant for national educational processes. Furthermore, as was flagged at UNECO’s October 2011 Education Research and Foresight informal discussion on the World Bank Strategy, it is important to highlight the fact that standardized assessments of learning and impact assessments are important business industries, with the associated risk of perpetuating the dependency of the most aid-dependent countries on the North for the design of these tools.

It might be helpful, for instance, in the context of the improvement of the quality of national education systems, to focus less on the outcome indicators at the global level, but more on process indicators at the country level. Indeed, process targets and indicators may be better suited to report on: (1) national efforts made to monitor levels of learning, as well as their social distribution at various stages of education, and (2) the use of such data in informing strategic interventions to improve the general levels of learning and ensure their more equitable distribution. Such process targets and indicators would allow national education authorities to be more accountable to their partners (families, civil society, other national departments, employers etc…) regarding the results of public investment in education. See, for example, the interesting discussion by Barrett (journal / working paper).

As for potential content of any post 2015 education agenda, while debate is underway, no clear orientations have, as yet, been defined. Having said this, a number of current initiatives are now pointing to the possible future contours of any post-2015 international education agenda. The report of the UN Task Team on Post-2015 Development Agenda “Realizing the Future we Want for All”, for instance, has just been completed. While it acknowledges “knowledge gaps” as a key development challenges and views education as an “enabling factor” for development, it does not propose any specific recommendations on education and training per se.

Interestingly, the report of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A future worth choosing” produced several months earlier (January 2012) makes a clear statement on education for sustainable development, including secondary education and vocational education and skills development as one of the six priority areas for action in view of “empowering people to make sustainable choices”:

Priority area for action No. 2

“Advancing education for sustainable development, including secondary and vocational education, and building skills to help ensure that all of society can contribute to solutions that address today’s’ challenges and capitalize on opportunities”.

The report further makes four specific recommendations relative to; MDG/EFA Goal 2 on universal primary education (Recommendation 4); “universal access to quality post-primary and secondary education no later than 2030” (Recommendation 5); “vocational training, retraining and professional development within the context of lifelong learning” (Recommendation 6); and (4) integration of the “concept of sustainable development and sustainable consumption (…) into curricula of primary and secondary education” (Recommendation 13). It remains to be seen how this report shall inform the upcoming Rio+20 Conference and the positioning of education with regard to formulation of “sustainable development goals”.

In this respect it is worth mentioning one of the key messages resulting from a recent UNESCO expert meeting in the Asia-Pacific region “Towards EFA 2015 and Beyond: Shaping a new vision of education” (Bangkok, 9-11 May 2012) which calls for “both an education-specific agenda beyond 2015 and explicit reference to education in global agendas, given the fundamental of education in advancing human development”.

Sobhi Tawil is a Senior Programme Specialist in the Education Research and Foresight Division at UNESCO. Email: s.tawil@unesco.org

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