Agenda 2030 – SDG4 Education 2030 – One Year On: Challenges and Opportunities

By Jordan Naidoo, UNESCO, Paris.


NORRAG NEWS 54 on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?” in now online.

It is just over a year ago on September 25, 2015 when global leaders adopted Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.  Some may argue that little has changed in the global landscape since then, as war and conflict have intensified and the means to address the refugee situation continues to elude policy makers.  Yet there have been a number of significant developments, not least on October 4th 2016, the historic Paris Agreement on climate change came into force — years sooner than expected. With regard to  Education and SDG 4 – many of the 22 countries provided some reflection on progress in education during the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2016; the Education Cannot Wait (ECW) Initiative was launched; the cross-cutting SDG era Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report was released and positively received, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity presented its Learning Generation report to the out-going Secretary General; and the former Executive Director of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, was acclaimed as the new Secretary General of the UN, raising hopes that education generally and that of refugees will receive increased dedicated attention in the new agenda.

Over the course of the year the challenges of delivering on the expanded ambition SDG4/education were fully recognized, with many critics continuing to emphasize that the targets are unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved.  However, many stakeholders particularly among civil society emphasised the need to remain committed to an expanded universal vision focused on leaving nobody behind. At the same time there have been some significant developments at national, regional and global levels in attempts to come to terms with how to manage implementation that is not only greater in scope but also universal.  First it has been fully recognized that such a comprehensive and ambitious agenda, requires country-level action linked to existing national or (only if necessary) new contextually defined plans based on an assessment of the current situation.  This has been the clear message arising from the series of regional and sub-regional SDG 4 consultations held in Bangkok, Cairo, Dakar, Kathmandu, Nairobi, Lusaka, Sharjah, Paris etc. since September 2015.

This was also echoed in many national consultations most of which invariably and positively were not sector specific, but approached the SDG implementation from a cross-sectoral integrated perspective.  In this first year many countries have devoted some effort, time and resources to analyse the implications of the Agenda 2030 and establish links between the SDGs and national priorities of the respective countries. Countries as diverse as Belize, Germany, Ghana and Vietnam among many others have undertaken reviews to align national development plans with the SDGs. With regard to SDG4 specifically, a host of countries have had consultations and aligned or started the process to align national education plans with SDG 4 including: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Cook Islands, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia Islands, Gambia, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Malaysia, Mauritius, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Tonga, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Zambia and  Zimbabwe.[1]

SDG consultations thus far have improved understanding of the SDG agenda, but have been inadequate. There has not been enough communication and understanding among policy makers, education officers and other stakeholders from senior levels down to rank and file staff responsible for policy implementation on what it actually means for their day to day work. For example, many SDG targets may mean curricular changes – what these changes are and how they may be enacted at different levels of the system and especially at classroom level is not clear for most actors in country. This is also the case for other requisite adjustments related to expanded early childhood education provision, learning assessment, skills development, TVET and higher education opportunities and the complexities of target 4.7. While most discussions have noted teachers as central to the SDG4 agenda, the challenge of addressing teacher shortages or quality has not been fully comprehended.

Many of the consultations at global, regional or national level have also surfaced tensions around prioritization, and between the interests of sub-sector stakeholders and constituencies. While there appears to be some commitment to lifelong learning, most consultations and plans are still dominated by an emphasis on basic formal education with some discussion of the need to expand TVET access with higher education receiving little attention. In terms of Target 4.7 the discussion and prioritization appears to focus primarily on global citizenship and how to measure it or its role as an antidote to extreme violence, with other aspects of 4.7 being downplayed or ignored.

While civil society actors have been quite active at global level in demanding greater civil society participation in the implementation of SDG4, and have been involved in the HLP review process and other global consultations, their participation in most countries appears to be quite minimal. There is no doubt that governance is a critical factor for successful implementation of the SDGs, and that ensuring transparency and good governance requires continuous monitoring from citizens. So it remains to be seen, given the current levels of engagement of civil society on the SDGs at national level, whether the role of civil society in accountability which is critical for the success of the new agenda is being adequately served. Hopefully, the 2017 GEM Report, which will focus on accountability, will shed some light on this issue.

Monitoring and reporting mechanisms for tracking progress toward SDG provide an enormous opportunity for learning and building on existing efforts, but this too has been a challenge given the delay in finalizing the indicators for monitoring progress. The recommendations of the Interagency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), created to finalize a global indicator framework (and associated global indicators) were to be considered by the Statistical Commission at its forty-seventh session in March 2016, and endorsed by ECOSOC and adopted by the UNGA in September 2016. However, its remit and work was extended and it is yet to finalize the global framework, which is now projected for completion and adoption in March 2017.  Accepting that delay was necessary to ensure necessary clarity in the indicators and to address issues related to methodology and data gaps, it has nevertheless resulted in a fair degree of confusion.

The readjusted IAEG timeline has in turn affected the work of the Technical Cooperation Group on Indicators co-chaired by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and UNESCO Education Sector’s Division of Education 2030 Support and Coordination (UNESCO ED/ESC), comprising experts from governments, multilateral agencies and civil society. It works to produce comparable education data required to track progress and monitor Sustainable Development Goal 4. Part of this task is to finalize the thematic indicators for SDG 4 (of which global indicators to be finalized by the IAEG is a sub-set) as outlined in the SDG4-Education 2030 Framework for Action. Despite concerted efforts including two face to face meetings and several on-line consultations it has not been able to finalize the indicators for endorsement by the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee. The latest status is that it will present 18 Thematic Indicators and the 11 Global Indicators (or any additional that may be proposed by the IAEG) to the Steering Committee in December for tracking progress in 2017. Fourteen (14) indicators will require much more substantive work by the TCG before they can be endorsed.  As a result, tracking progress across all targets of SDG 4 in a comprehensive way will not be possible in the immediate instance.

Another key area of concern in this first year are unanswered questions on the issue of the increased finances needed from domestic and external sources for supporting the expanded agenda amid further evidence from the 2016 GEM Report and the Learning Generation on the widening gap in funding. There is no clear indication at this point on increased commitments from either source. In this scenario, the role of the private sector while increasingly in the spotlight, is not clear both in terms of increased funding but also its impact on the right to education. The issue of funding is further complicated by some of the proposals from the Commission for Financing Education Opportunities, in particular that of a multi-lateral Bank for Education Financing. It is not clear where additional funding will come from or how it will cohere with exiting mechanisms such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) or the newly created Education Cannot Wait (EWC) fund.

Despite these and other challenges, in particular related to   moving beyond slogans such as ‘leaving no-one behind’ and ‘not business as usual’, the general commitment expressed for SDG 4 and its fundamental importance for the overall SDG agenda give hope that action will be speeded up at all levels to ensure the promise of inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all. The overall commitment and enthusiasm at different levels are promising and must be capitalized to support effective action going forward.

Jordan Naidoo, UNESCO, Paris. Email:

[1] The further OECD countries also had such national consultations: Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, USA

This blog reproduces an article in the new issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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Do the SDGs Matter? A Teacher’s View

By Desmond Bermingham, Varkey Foundation, London.


NORRAG NEWS 54 on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?” in now online.

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may be important for global policy makers, the real change makers are the teachers in the classroom. Finding new ways to train and motivate these teachers will be key to reaching SDG4 in all developing countries.

One of my most enjoyable tasks since joining the Varkey Foundation earlier this year was to spend a day with the Instructional Leadership training programme for senior teachers and school leaders in Kiyunga- Mukono District, a two hour drive outside Kampala, Uganda.   The trainers organised a warm up activity to re-energise everyone after lunch.  The seventy seven teachers were asked to line up outside the training room in order of years of experience.  The spectrum ranged from 35 to 5 years in the classroom. I calculated that there were more than a thousand years of teaching experience represented in that group!

Yet these experienced teachers were eagerly engaging in a series of intensive training sessions to learn new skills and new ways of supporting active learning.   After the one week training course, the Varkey Foundation Uganda team – all experienced Ugandan teachers themselves – carry out follow up visits to the schools over a period of one year to see if the teachers are putting the training into practice in their classrooms.  In almost all cases the answer is yes.

The skills being taught are not rocket science – they will be familiar to many teachers reading NORRAG News.  How to get children thinking and problem solving together.  How to make best use of locally available resources.  How to make sure that every child – especially the girls – participate in the class.  How to pace your lesson and check for understanding so that learning really takes place. This was a cost effective (no expensive international consultants!) and well thought out training programme designed by teachers for teachers.

I have to confess that I have spent far too much time over the past two decades in ‘high level’ discussions on the ‘alphabet soup’ of international development – PRSPs, MDGs, IDTs (anyone remember those?) and now the SDGs. It was a joy to spend a day with practising teachers from some of the poorest communities in Uganda who are still dedicated to the care and learning of the children in their charge.

I am fairly sure that most of those 77 teachers would not have been aware of the details of the 17 SDGs and the 169 associated targets.  Nor would they necessarily have been conscious that their work is critical to the achievement of the targets 4.1, 4.2, 4.5 and (possibly) 4.7 in the education SDGs as well as (indirectly) the achievement of many of the other SDGs.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that the SDGs are not important.  As writers elsewhere in this issue of NN54 have eloquently argued, global goals have a role to play in shaping the agenda of international organisations and (to a lesser extent) influencing national policy decisions.  This global voice of reason is more important than ever as a response to the reactionary and ill-informed nationalism evidenced in many countries.

However, I do make an appeal to all of those involved in these international debates to remind themselves from time to time of the reality of the teachers, classrooms and homes in poorest and marginalised communities in every country in the world.  The SDGs do matter to these communities.  But for the achievement of the education goals at least, #teachersmatter more.


The Varkey Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation committed to ‘Changing lives through education’ by ensuring that every child has a great teacher and advocating for their increased status across the world including through the Global Teacher Prize .

Desmond Bermingham is the Director of Progammes at the Varkey Foundation in London

This blog reproduces an article in the new issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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For Global Learning Metrics, Ask Cognitive Scientists

By Helen Abadzi, College of Education, University of Texas at Arlington.

learningThe December of 2016 brought worrisome messages to many Ministries of Education.  The 2015 PISA and TIMSS[1] scores were publicized.  Despite efforts, Latin American countries have low scores, as do the wealthy Gulf States.  Policymakers are unsure how to improve instruction for better outcomes.

The results’ release coincided with several regional workshops to contextualize the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4).  The targets were developed after consulting with thousands of people who were related to education in some ways.  Agreement could only be reached in the broadest terms: e.g. “Percentage of children and young people in grades 2/3 achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics, by sex.” [Global indicator 4.1.1]

Now comes the hard part. How to set valid benchmarks of “minimum proficiency” in reading and math for Yoruba, Arab or Lao children in grades 2/3 or justify comparisons with the Finns and Chinese?

Apparently no one knows. Thus far, the only emerging benchmarks are for more monitoring and consultations. One proposal is for subject experts to meet regionally, discuss how learning progress in each subject is understood in different contexts, and which assessment questions best capture learning progression.  Organization and funding will be needed, and any answers may be years and millions of dollars away.

In the meantime, policymakers despair over test scores. Some wish that this enthusiasm for testing spread into curricula, teacher training, textbooks, and instructional time. But the SDG consultations focus on lofty, big-picture strategies. The “translation” job is left for local actors to figure out.

Is it possible to shortcut the looming years of uncertainty and teach students efficiently?  Most certainly, if someone asks cognitive scientists. But readers must be warned that some answers run counter to popular beliefs.

The unifying principle for international comparisons is the DNA of homo sapiens.  Our brains think in similar ways, say the writings of Dr. William Huitt, Professor Emeritus of Valdosta State University in Georgia, USA.  Despite individual differences, humans process information similarly across countries and cultures. This bedrock of human commonalities could be used to build SDG benchmarks.

An obvious aid for benchmarking is “working memory,” would say Dr. William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A & M in the US and a prolific author on memory topics. Working memory contains what is in your mind right now and accurately maintains information that is necessary to work through problems.  But its capacity is very limited; it holds 4-7 items for maybe 12 seconds. This gives us just seconds in which to comprehend, calculate, make decisions.  We must be able to act rapidly and effortlessly.

Thus the holy grail for comparing performance is execution speed and automaticity. Global metrics could be developed for fluency in reading, math, science, various other skills.

Dr. Pierluigi Zoccolotti, professor at University of Rome psychology department, finds this a promising approach.  Words per minute are a rough but easy way to gauge whether students retain enough text in working memory in order to understand it. For that, students must know the language and recall meanings instantly. If they must exert mental effort, they use up extra milliseconds, lose their trail of thought and may answer incorrectly. Students taking TIMSS essentially engage in the battle of the milliseconds.

But how to speed up processing to the point of instant, effortless, automatic performance?  The nervous system demands practice. Classroom time and homework must offer sufficient practice opportunities, according to Dr. Craig Speelman, of Edith Cowan University in Australia. Improvement is rapid at first, then slows down. Learning curves have mathematical trends.  They could help predict the amounts of time children would attain various objectives and the number of instructional hours.

How else to speed up reading?  The size and spacing of letters read are critical, says Dr. Marialuisa Martelli, University of Rome.  Our visual system slows down if the letters are too small or too dense.  Optimal spacing and size will shave seconds off the reading time giving our working memory more time to consider a message before it disappears. Younger students are affected. This matters a lot in the younger ages, but adults often write texts for their own expert reading processes.  In principle, 4th grade TIMSS scores in visually challenging scripts like Arabic or Thai could improve a bit by optimizing size and spacing.

Which mental functions would improve math performance in TIMSS and other tests?  Accurate estimations are important, says Dr. Daniel Ansari of U. Western Ontario.  Our brains have an exact and an approximate number system.  Again, practice is needed to automatize the components of the exact system, and also to fine-tune the approximate system.  This way, a student may get a fuzzy estimate and see which response alternatives fit.

But practice, memorization, automaticity are not on the menu of modern schools.  They sound like narrow, sterile, traditional, 19th century education! Governments nowadays aim for creativity, discovery learning, and critical thinking.  Some fun projects are certainly important, but many activities gobble up teaching time to the detriment of practice. And neurocognitive research suggests that is putting the cart before the horse. Complex thinking is possible only when lots of prerequisite knowledge arrives instantly into working memory.  Students who were merely “exposed” to certain concepts may forget them entirely or retrieve them after a delay. Life events require instant retrieval.  To spend our money wisely, for example, we must calculate unit prices quickly, not three hours after leaving a store.

Why is speed a hard concept to digest? Perhaps because of incongruity. Memory functions are largely unconscious, so we are unaware of what we do. Please pay some attention and see how many seconds you took to read and understand this paragraph.  If you used more than about 10, you would get tired and give up.

The primacy of processing speed has big testing implications.  Most tests do not exactly measure knowledge; they only measure the knowledge that can be retrieved and applied within a few seconds. To perform, students should spend significant time memorizing and practicing sequences, which then pass as a single item into working memory. Top-scoring countries in TIMSS or PISA have historically emphasized practice.  Their students may not necessarily know more; instead, they may be able to retrieve more in fewer milliseconds.  Emphasis on fun activities worldwide may reduce practice time and eventually test scores. And governments that invested millions in modernizing methods may be at a loss to explain why.

Below are some of the ways to specify terms like “minimum proficiency.”  If cognitive scientists had been consulted about the indicators for SDG 4, they might have recommended some items like the ones below:

  • Reading speed for the primary school grades to monitor the attainment of automaticity
  • Calculating speed, magnitude processing tests, speed of single-digit operations
  • Learning rates for students in key tasks

Neuroscientists may have much more to add.  For example, research to model structural changes in developing brains may help estimating learning rates for various subjects beyond basic skills. By 2030, neuroimaging devices may assess knowledge through learners’ brain states and thus bypass some problems of international comparability. This is already feasible for some tasks. Experimentally, reading automaticity is often assessed using neuroimaging methods in ways that bypass the complexities of different languages and scripts. Thus, comparative education may morph into comparative neuroscience.

To achieve the 2030 targets, governments and international organizations must engage cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. Right now neither side knows that the other exists. Education colleges keep their distance from psychology, and their degrees rarely include courses on memory. During the 2015 consultations about the SDGs, the input of the few learning specialists was averaged with that of generalists. The consequences are now obvious.

If we continue to disregard the DNA guidance, test scores will continue to be modest. By 2030 surely more policymakers will demand help from memory functions. But students, particularly low-income students, should not have to wait until then.


[1] Programme for International Student Assessment; Trends in Mathematics and Science Study.

Helen Abadzi is a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington.  To improve the outcomes of education investments she regularly monitors research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.  Her publications can be found at:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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2017: Reshaping the Landscape for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training

Kenneth King, NORRAG News editor, and University of Edinburgh

ghanaIn our first blog of January 2016, we celebrated the end of post-2015 and the beginning of Agenda 2030. A huge amount has happened on this new Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda since then, and some of the diversity of that is captured critically in a forthcoming special issue of NORRAG News (NN) 54: Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One year On?

Another almost unprecedented event of 2015/2016 was the massive movement of peoples both across and within national borders. This was by no means only a phenomenon affecting countries in Europe; in most cases the refugee and displaced people movements were very much larger in other countries, in the global South. Again, we captured something of the sheer variety, impact and consequences of this external and internal migration in NN53: Refugees, Displaced Persons and Education: New Challenges for Development and Policy.

What, if anything, was the connection between ‘the world we want’ – a slogan closely associated with the SDG process – and ‘the world on the move’- of mass external and internal migration?  We will note in NN54 that the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘displaced’ don’t even occur in the main text of the SDGs and that ‘migration’ only appears once, in a sentence that it is hard to believe was crafted and agreed by the member states of the UN when disorderly, unsafe, irregular and irresponsible migration was massively already underway:

10.7 Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies (UN)

There does, however, appear to have been some connection between ‘migration’ and two of the other dramatic events of the past year, both completely unanticipated by polling professionals: the BREXIT vote in the UK (by just 52% of the 72% who voted) was in part influenced by an anti-migrant rhetoric, and the same could be said of the US vote in November 2016.

Whatever the weaknesses in the phrasing of some of the SDGs, they draw upon a long and historic process of establishing universal aspirations and ambitions for the world. For instance, the word ‘international’ appears no less than 20 times in the text of the 19 goals, in such phrases as international ‘cooperation’, ‘agreements’, ‘frameworks’ and ‘law’. The spirit of internationalism runs throughout the SDG agreement, even if the whole process is based on an assumption of national implementation.

These four events of 2016 will have a continuing impact in 2017, altering the landscape in ways that are still hard to anticipate. The new populism and nationalism, captured in the mantra of ‘Get our country back’, may be evident in other referenda and elections taking place during 2017.

Our interest in NORRAG is of course to analyse how these new forces will influence international policies and cooperation in education and training. It can be anticipated that the pressures around these new nationalisms will discourage the spending of state budgets on development aid – on far-off ‘foreigners’. In response, it may be argued that if development finance can help improve the living standards in the countries and regions from which migrants are pouring out, it will prove to be politically attractive. But such impact will be hugely difficult to demonstrate rapidly. We may anticipate, therefore, that 2017 will see the demand for cuts in development aid, regardless of the SDG commitment in Goal 17.2 for:

Developed countries to implement fully their official development assistance commitments, including the commitment by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income for official development assistance (ODA/GNI) to developing countries (UN)

Already the reduction in the value of sterling by at least 10% has wiped £1 billion off the value of UK’s annual aid budget. In addition, there will be eventually a removal of the €2 billion euros channelled annually through the European Union’s Development Fund (EDF). 2017, with the new US presidency, will be a critical year for United States’ development funding, including for USAID. In the next issue of NORRAG News (55) we shall examine how the impact of these new national and global movements are influencing the landscape of traditional development aid.

We are particularly interested in what may happen to international cooperation in education, and to educational mobility and educational partnerships. The BREXIT vote has of course already begun to impact student mobility to the UK and from the UK to other member states within the 28 countries of the EU. This will become much more marked once the UK formally exits the EU. The current vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, 17% of whose university research income comes through competitive grants from the EU, has stressed that ‘More worrying than the loss of revenue is the damage to the networks of collaboration on which world-class science depends today’ (Borysiewicz, 2016:13).

In NORRAG’s current membership of some 5000 individuals, no fewer than 1 in 10 members are based in the UK, the majority of them with significant international and comparative educational linkages and partnerships. We shall begin monitoring in 2017 how the new forces of nationalism are impacting on international educational partnerships and mobility.

Education Milestones in 2017

Though the political and partnership forecasts for 2017 seem currently very uncertain, there are still some significant education events which hold promise for refocusing attention on international education as well as on education cooperation.

The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report (WDR): This will be the first WDR ever to focus exclusively on education. The initial concept note on this WDR uses the title: Realising the Promise of Education for Development. In addition to the promise as a key theme, there is mention of The Learning Crisis and Learning Metrics to Guide Reform as key themes, as well as Effective Interventions to Build Learning and Learning at Scale. There will be consultation processes taking place globally during January-March 2017, and the final volume should be available in the late autumn of 2017.

The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), which will be thematically focused on Accountability, will become available also in the autumn.

Two of the world’s great conferences on comparative and international education take place also in 2017: the CIES will be in Atlanta, USA from 5-9 March, and the UKFIET’s biennial conference will be in New College, Oxford from 5-7 September. These are both events which attract NORRAG members from around the world. Doubtless, they will provide ample opportunities thoughtfully to review the changing landscape for international policies and cooperation in education and training.


Borysiewicz, L. 2016. Brexit means Brexit. This is how the university will meet the challenges, Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM) no 79.

Kenneth King is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Social and Political Studies and in the School of Education in Edinburgh University. He is also the Editor of NORRAG News.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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SDG? What is That?

By Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.


Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy: Another SDG

The purpose of this note is to comment on how the SDG framework resonates in Brazil. I could state that it does not resonate at all and stop there. But in order to make my opinion more credible let me expand on my answer.

Some impressions were gathered along the way, in my comings and goings around the world, under the auspices of the ILO, the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank.

Small and vulnerable countries pay attention to much of what comes out of the UN family. Big countries do not.

The United States got out of Unesco, to return later. Americans hardly took notice of either movement. In this case, the country is too big and powerful to care. Brazil is big but not powerful. However, it suffers from an acute case of isolationism.

Ask any middle ranking bureaucrat in Brasilia about the UN agencies. Chances are that they see them as organizations that fund projects that Brazilian authorities want to execute. Given the impossible bureaucratic rules, they resort to them, in order to bypass the baroque rituals and restrictions. From all we know, Brazilian consultants seriously execute these projects. Most of the times, their names are indicated by the interested Ministries. This bypass trick is a most useful role for the government, given the absurd intricacies of the local bureaucracy.

As to the messages of the different UN agencies, yes, we listen to them, when its representatives are asked to speak in public occasions. But since these lofty ideas come without a budget, they are soon forgotten.

SDG is another of those messages. Who pays attention to it? From all I know, very few people.

Everyday I read an electronic clipping of news about education. It may be instructive to note that I never read a single entry on the topic.

Next test is to ask Mr. Google what he thinks. When typing “Objetivos de Desenvolvimento Sustentável” (the official translation into Portuguese) a grand total of 356 thousand entries were indicated. To have some kind of comparison I typed my own name. Surprise, I have about the same number of entries. Am I famous or is SDG an idea that never took root in Brazil? Since the first alternative is clearly false, we have to accept the other.

Veja is the leading Brazilian weekly news magazine, with a circulation of over one million copies. Being a center-right publication, it reflects what interests the average Brazilians. A search for the Portuguese translation of SDG identified four entries in 2016 and five in 2015. By contrast, Google found 362 million entries under the name of the magazine. This is a vague estimate as it includes a cleaning product with the same name as well as references to the magazine in other media. However, it gives some idea of the popularity of SDG in the country.

I am not sure whether this is evidence of my ignorance on major issues or evidence of how marginal SDG is in my milieu, but I had to search Google to find out what these three letters stood for.

Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Email:


This blog is based on a forthcoming article in the next issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”, expected to be released in January 2017.

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Might the Ambitious Targets for Post-Basic Education Further Delay Achievement of Universal Basic Education Beyond 2030 in Sub-Saharan Africa?

By Birger Fredriksen, Results for Development Institute.

africaI am a strong supporter of the education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). However, in this blog I want to caution that calling for universal access to upper secondary and higher education by 2030 could contribute to many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) not reaching even universal basic education (UBE) – defined here as universal primary, lower secondary and at least youth literacy – by that year. For most SSA countries, even universal primary education has become a moving target, shifting from 1980 (agreed in 1961 in Addis Ababa), to 2000 (Jomtien 1990) to 2015 (Dakar 2000), and now to 2030.

In fact, while this overly ambitious goal for post-basic education risks driving domestic and aid funding priorities away from UBE and basic skills development programs, the SDG goal for literacy is less ambitious than the corresponding Education for All (EFA) goal. However, despite this ambition and the impressive gains in access to primary education between 2000 and 2015, SSA’s adult literacy rate barely improved. This reflects failure to improve (i) the survival rate to the final grade of primary education (it has remained at around 60% since the 1970s); (ii) learning outcome among those completing the cycle; and (iii) provision of second chance programs for those missing out on primary education. As a result, SSA enters the SDG period with two in five adults being illiterate and one in five children out of school.

In the absence of vigorous action in the above three areas, basic skills development in SSA risks stagnating at a low level. In particular, one-third of SSA’s labour force could still be illiterate in the 2030s, and more than one-third of children could be born to illiterate mothers. The former would seriously hamper progress towards most non-education SDGs. The latter would reinforce the intergenerational vicious cycle of poverty, low health and education status, slow demographic transition and marginalization. The impact of such developments would be felt beyond SSA including through increased economic migration: By 2050, SSA is projected to account for 38% of births worldwide, up from 25% in 2015.

There are at least four major interrelated reasons why the ambitious goal for post-basic education may slow down progress towards UBE in SSA:

First, over the 2015-30 period, SSA will need much higher growth in education funding to reach UBE than other regions. This is because of the massive catch-up growth needed to achieve UBE, accentuated by the projected one-third increase in the school-aged population by 2030 (all other developing regions will see a small decrease). And, even in the absence of the ambitious SDG goal, social demand for post-basic education would increase sharply, given that, in 2014, SSA’s Gross Enrolment Ratio was only 35% in upper secondary and 8% in tertiary education.

Second, funding UBE will likely become more challenging than it was in the year 2000. During most of the 2000-15 period, a combination of resumed economic growth, an increased share of GDP devoted to education and rising education aid led to a much faster annual education budget growth (4-5%) than during the 1980s and 1990s (about 1%). In turn, tighter budgets will make the political economy of prioritizing UBE even more difficult than in the past. Population groups missing out on UBE have much less political clout than those seeking entry to post-basic education, whose voices now are reinforced by the call for universal access.

Third, to meet this funding challenge will require sustained economic growth at a high level.  Growth accounted for about two-third of past decade’s rise in education budgets. It will become an even more important determinant over the next decade: Education’s share of public budgets in SSA (17% in 2014) already exceeds the average for developing countries. Further, aid has stagnated globally in recent years, and SSA’s share of aid for basic education has declined sharply (from 49% in 2002-03 to 28% in 2014). But the medium-term growth prospects are not encouraging. IMF’s October 2016 Economic Outlook estimates that SSA’s GDP per capita grew annually by 4.1% between 2004 and 2008, 2.6% between 2009 and 2014, and 0.9% in 2015. It is projected to decline by 0.9% in 2016 and increase by 0.5% in 2017. If this stagnation were to continue for several years, the fiscal space to meet the massive education funding needs would be severely limited.

Four, low basic labour force skills is a growing constraint on the economic transformation SSA needs to generate high, sustained economic growth. The main causes of the current economic slowdown have no easy short-term fixes. In addition to the end of the commodity boom, it is caused by severe structural constraints. Key among these is very poor labour force skills, especially in the rural sector where, in most countries, 50% or more of the labour force is illiterate. Skills upgrading alone will not be sufficient; other constraints such as poor infrastructure, chronic power shortages, bad business climate and, in many cases, increased insecurity, are very serious. But drastically improved basic skills is an absolute necessity to accelerate the transformation from dual economies where 80-90% of the labour force is engaged in low productivity informal sector activities, to economies where growth is driven by rising productivity in such activities as well as growth in the manufacturing and modern service sectors. Over the last three decades, manufacturing’s share of total employment in SSA has stagnated at around 6%, and the informal farm and household enterprise sector remains the employer of last resort for the majority of young people whatever their level of education including post-basic.

Obviously, SSA countries must develop the post-basic education skills needed to support national development. But the labour market for such skills is very narrow and will not for decades warrant publically-financed universal access, especially not to higher education. Rather, education and training budget allocations should be guided by the “progressive universalization” called for by the Education Commission, here taken to mean that UBE must be reached before prioritizing publicly-funded post-basic education beyond what can reasonably be justified by national development needs.

In short, reaching UBE is a development stage that no country can “leapfrog”. It is time to reset education priorities in favour of the large population groups and economic sectors that benefit little from education spending (including aid).

Birger Fredriksen is a leading expert on the development of education in developing countries at the Results for Development Institute.

This blog is an abridged version of a forthcoming article in the next issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”, expected to be released in January 2017.

Other NORRAG blogs by the same author:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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A Global Offer for Learning: Rewards for Testing and Educational Progress

By William Savedoff, Centre for Global Development.

learn2Developing countries spend $1 trillion annually on education and receive $13 billion in foreign aid, according to a recent report, The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World. While that means more children are in school than ever before, this report from the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity also indicates an alarming fact: children are not learning much.

The Commission just posted a series of background papers for tackling this problem, including “A Global Offer for Learning (GOL): Based on Experiences with Paying for Results,” which my CGD colleagues and I designed as a novel way to draw political attention to this learning gap and encourage much needed reforms. The rationale for collecting data on learning and its critical function is presented in a second CGD policy paper, “Learning Data for Better Policy: A Global Agenda.”

The lack of learning is serious and widespread in low-income countries. Some 250 million children of primary school age are not learning basic skills—even though half of them have spent at least four years in school. In India, one-quarter of children surveyed in grade 5 could not read a simple sentence. And educational progress is slow. At current rates, it would take Ghana 100 years for its primary completers to have the competencies expected for children finishing British schools today. More generally, projections show that only 1 in 10 children in low-income countries will be on track to gain basic secondary-level skills by 2030.The waste of money spent on such poor schooling is enormous, but the real tragedy is the impact on children who spend years in schools that fail them.

An important reason for this learning gap is its invisibility. Governments and aid agencies like to count schools and enrollment, but assessing whether children know basic skills is not common. Without information on learning at early ages, schools get little feedback to improve their performance; governments lack evidence to guide policy; and citizens cannot hold their governments accountable. No international test exists for assessing children’s competencies at an early age (i.e., nine years old). Yet, literacy and numeracy at this age are critical to achieving educational benefits from additional years of schooling, economic benefits from increased productivity, and social benefits from improved citizenship.

To increase learning gap visibility, why not offer countries a prize for conducting tests and adding a bonus for each child who knows how to read and do basic arithmetic? This is the essence of the Global Offer for Learning which is a detailed proposal based on experiences and lessons from a wide range of Pay-for-Results programs.

The Global Offer for Learning would have two parts. An Assessment Award would pay countries US$1.5 million each year that they apply a qualified test (for up to seven years). Countries that apply the test would also be eligible for an Achievement Award: a payment of US$4 for each 9-year-old who has learned basic skills (for up to US$2 million each year over the same period). A novel funding arrangement with a third-party fund administrator would allow donors to budget funds in the year after the awards are disbursed. By pooling countries in one global program, the proposal can be more certain that it will disburse its committed funds each year despite individual variation in performance. The award amounts are set high enough to draw political attention but not so high as to generate perverse incentives and distort decisions.

Perhaps the most important feature of the proposal is its insistence that countries are the primary agents of their own educational progress. By learning from other pay for results programs, we designed this Global Offer for Learning to maximize the autonomy and engagement of participating countries. Participation would be completely voluntary—it is meant to be an “offer,” not a demand. For countries that already recognize the value of applying such a test (which would be comparable over time and across countries), a relatively small monetary prize could provide the political focus and support necessary to make it happen. In the absence of such a nudge, large budget items (like payroll and infrastructure) are likely to monopolize policymakers’ attention to the detriment of small but transformative expenditures on testing, pedagogy, and management. If the initial experiences prove positive, other countries are likely to join, much like the growing participation in international assessments like TIMSS and PIRLS.

Almost all the money spent by governments and aid organizations is channeled through traditional approaches that focus on inputs such as schools built, students enrolled, and teachers employed, rather than what students have learned. By putting money behind a Global Offer for Learning, bilateral and multilateral agencies, philanthropists, and foundations could focus attention on learning; stimulate innovation; generate better evidence to guide policy; and help a generation of the world’s poorest children gain the skills they need for productive, empowered lives.

Bill Savedoff is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) where he works on issues of aid effectiveness and health policy.

This blog was first posted on the CGD website on 29th November 2016.

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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