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Baking the Cake after 2015: Do the EFA Goals have the Right Ingredients?

By Alexandra Draxler, former UNESCO education specialist.

The 12th September NORRAG  workshop on education and skills post 2015 was a wide-ranging discussion on the objectives, actors and levers of the post-2015 agenda.  As Simon McGrath pointed out in his earlier post, participants looked at issues related to the universal nature of the goals, development  theory in general, the relationships between global and local, and the imbalance between North and South in terms of policy conception and analysis (see the other related NORRAG blog posts on the 12th Sept meeting here: part 1, part 2).   We also took a look at the driving forces behind Education for All (EFA) (the “industry”) and how its configuration might change post-2015. This post aims to continue the debate by looking at some of the flaws in the original EFA design.

Turning around troubled schools – or indeed educational systems – as Anthony Bryk  and colleagues have pointed out, is like baking a cake: one needs the right ingredients, in the right proportions, baked at the correct temperature. Tampering with just one is “like poking the raw batter with a toothpick”. The past twelve years of EFA have seen considerable progress in school enrolments. Unfortunately progress in pedagogy, or indeed learning, has not been an automatic result of increased enrolments. It seems the discourse will now shift from enrolments to quality, and we risk in a few years finding that we are still poking the raw batter, only with a different toothpick.

There has been very little discussion in policy, academic and NGO circles about whether or not the EFA goals of 1990 and 2000 were a good idea in the first place. Of course, the aim to open more and better learning opportunities for everyone throughout life is both a noble aim and a pertinent one. But, the process of setting targets is an entirely different matter.  For starters, let us remember that there has never been, in the history of the United Nations, an education target that has been met. The first education target set by UNESCO in 1961 was for universal primary education in Africa by 1980. The dates and contours of universal education over the world have been several times re-described and moved since then as a reaction to the non-achievement of the previous aims and goals. The agenda or EFA did have the effect of focusing national policies, and to a significant extent both external and internal resources, on primary schooling.  But the defects, opportunity costs and perverse effects of this focus remain insufficiently examined.

I am struck by similarities between high-stakes testing in schools and the race to reach the EFA goals. Why do I make this parallel? Because both paradigms have the effect of shining a spotlight on a few easy-to-understand themes that are attractive for politicians but do not address the overall question of how to build good schools and good educational systems [i]. Both purport to address universal problems, but do not look at the devil in the detail. Neither is without significant opportunity costs. They are, in other words, poking the batter of the quality education cake.

Let us look at four problems with high-stakes testing that also apply to the EFA goals.

1.      Shaky theoretical evidence

EFA has been justified on the grounds of high rates of return to primary education (both individual and societal), contributing to national development, poverty reduction, gender equality, fertility reduction and many other things. However, its causal relationship to these, as well to any general development theory is, as McGrath pointed out, somewhat unclear. The excessive focus on measurable targets and benefits is a distraction from recognition that education is a public good and that quality learning for all is a human right.

2.      External actors, implementers involved late

Ownership has for some time been part of the development vocabulary.  Nevertheless, the principal actors designing and pushing the EFA challenge are representing the developing world but not necessarily of it. They are primarily based in the developed world (including this writer). The number of post-2015 events and reflections planned by the countries most behind in achieving the EFA goals is limited, to put it gently. The implementation, though, falls upon people who are facing real-life obstacles and contradictions and who will inevitably be forced to ignore these partially or completely in focusing their attention on metrics and management of universal schooling.

3.      Counting what can be counted, not necessarily what counts

Although the EFA monitoring team and international institutions have constantly emphasized that EFA cannot be summarized by enrolments, it is enrolments and teacher recruitment that have had the primary focus and attention of the goals.  We have recently seen a renewal of attention to quality in the EFA discourse, as the evidence has mounted of the ineffectiveness of pushing the enrolment acceleration beyond the capacity of countries to carry it out with any effectiveness in terms of learning. But the reaction of the international community seems to be to work harder to develop metrics intended to measure skills and learning across the board. Implementing these metrics effectively in impoverished situations will be impossible and will certainly distract from actual teaching and learning activities in situations where there is no elasticity in the system.

4.      Opportunity costs or perverse effects

Opportunity costs are many. Resources are not unlimited, and the focus of EFA has certainly had the perverse effect of distracting attention from whole system improvement. Accelerated teacher recruitment, to take one example, has necessarily reached out to unqualified candidates in many countries. These teachers are in the system in tens of millions now. They are sometimes demotivated, with unstable contracts and few opportunities to become qualified. Some teach competently, some badly or not at all. Over time their presence has the effect of lowering the status of the entire profession, driving out qualified teachers and lowering the quality of the applicant pool. Building back up the status and quality of the profession back up is a long-term challenge, and in the meantime overall education quality suffers both in reality and in the perception of users. Vocational education, secondary education and higher education have also suffered in poorer countries as resources have lacked for improving quality or expanding opportunity.

In conclusion…

For NORRAG members who are concerned about how priorities are set and why, a look at post-2015 in the light of opportunity costs and perverse effects of EFA offers a significant and worthwhile effort: they can do their bit to make sure local actors are setting the agenda, they can help ensure the big picture as well as local realities are an integral part of any objective, and they can define the what and how of the education systems they are trying to build. The final cake will always have to be baked close to where it is eaten, and if it provokes indigestion, the local community will be the first to feel the effects.


[i] This is not the place to launch into the various possible definitions of “good”. For this post, we will just settle for “equitable” and “focused on fostering a broad range of cognitive and affective skills”.

Alexandra Draxler was an education specialist at UNESCO. She is now an independent consultant. Email:

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2 Responses

  1. Post 2015, Quality of Education to be high on the agenda, so that education could lead people to their own development, and to the achievement of rights that is universal
    By: Randa Hilal
    It’s very important to argue what education and what development for post 2015, taking into consideration the MDG implementation experience and targets achieved, here I would like to argue based on the experience of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt), not only being part of the South, but still under occupation with difficult status of 2 authorities and separated territories, with people in refugee camps for three to four generations and with daily violations of human rights, raising the issue of rights, security and protection of the people .
    Education and skills development for Palestinians remained an ultimate goal for each family, specially after loss of land in 1948, such perception has lead to increased number of Palestinians accomplishing their basic education with no gender parity, and many moving on to accomplish higher education and some into TVET education.
    The positive indicators in the education sector were not reflected in the labour market on the contrary it was found that unemployment is high among Youth, although for Palestinians the measures of the Israeli occupation is hindering economic development, yet in the Arab region similar indicators prevails of high youth unemployment and low women participation rates (sharper rates in oPt), Raising a question what sort of education do we need?, does education provided responds to youth aspirations, as well as the oPt and the region needs for social and economic development?
    As a researcher into work force and labour market needs, various of these researches has pointed out to a big apparent gap between: What the education system provides and how it is provided, on the one hand, and what the labour market needs and the needs of the social and economic development requirements on the other hand.
    In various sectors I have found weaknesses in progress as people are not able to link theory with practice, or apply knowledge to different setting, hence unable to make use of knowledge attained, with almost weak related skills, therefore weak ability to drive their personal development and success, and to upgrade public and private different sectors and businesses, again what sort of education is required?
    I worked as a lecturer in 2 Universities in Engineering departments and had my critics on how do we teach science, engineering and technology, Lacking practice, hands on experiences, and abilities of problem solving, critical and logic thinking, which I found of high importance to such specializations, hence graduates would need extended experience in the market to build up required competencies and skills, and provide sector development needed.
    Again still people perceive TVET as a second option, while first option for the marginalized, as various success stories has emerged. Hence perception and attitudes are main engines behind choices for education, streaming in education and women’s participation in the labour force.
    Therefore again, What sort of education is needed? The quality of education is very important to that leads to finding jobs, to innovative to labour market, to develop own country and achievement of rights. In order to achieve that, quality of education, in its contents, structure, relevance, and including personal and key skills are important.
    Basic education that is embedded on the culture of rights, and has to be universal in the south as well as in the north, is so important to widespread equality, equity, and human rights values worldwide, hopefully leading to better practicing human rights in the North as well as in the South maybe after one- to two generations.
    Therefore Quality of Education is the main issue of concern for the next era, Post 2015 should look for education that would lead people to their own development, and to achievement of rights that is universal.

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