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10 Apr 2017

Lost in Translation? Is the Road to an SDG Heaven – or to the Other Place - Paved with Inadequate Global Indicators? By Kenneth King

By Kenneth King, NORRAG and the University of Edinburgh.

After the highly inclusive process of developing the education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4), a much more technical process was used to produce the global indicators. The challenge of securing the ambitious targets for education in SDG4 and assessing these via the global indicators is examined here with particular attention to primary and secondary education and to skills development. Arguably, a good deal of the SDG4’s huge aspirations for expanded rights to, and breadth of, education appears to get lost in translation to the global indicators.

The UN’s Inter-Agency and Expert Group for Sustainable Development Indicators (IAEG) was responsible for developing Global Indicators for all 17 Goals, including SDG4. There are 11 global indicators for SDG4’s 10 targets. There are 32 other, thematic indicators for education, but only the global indicators are used for reporting to the UN’s Annual SDG Reports. So these will get the priority attention for member states wishing to provide national data to the UN process.

Let’s look at this ‘translation’ activity:

Here is a first example – the vitally important Target 1 of SDG4: ‘….ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes’ (emphasis added).

This become a global indicator via the IAEG translation process, as follows: ‘Proportion of children and young people at grade 2/3; end of primary; and end of lower secondary, achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics, by sex’. That’s it!

So, the crucially important descriptors, ‘free’, ‘relevant’ and ‘effective’ disappear completely; and ‘quality’ is translated and narrowed into ‘minimum proficiency’ in just two subjects.

Here is a second example, from the world of skills development: SDG 4.3 and 4.4 talk of equal access for all to ‘quality technical, vocational and tertiary education’ and of increasing numbers ‘who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship’ (emphasis added). These descriptors confirmed a major change from the term ‘life-skills’ which distracted the global monitoring process of this Education for All Dakar Goal.  What is the global indicator for these two targets?

These SDG ambitions get translated into a global indicator that only aims to measure ‘Proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT) skills, by type of skill’.

And ‘quality technical and vocational’ becomes merely ‘participation rate in formal and non-formal education and training’ in last 12 months.

Of course, ICT skills are hugely important, but they constitute only a small subsector of the very wide range of technical and vocational skills.

These are just two examples of how the SDG4 ambitions for free and good quality education and training at different levels have been narrowed. This abandonment of the term ‘free’ at a time when the privatization of public education is proceeding at speed is potentially very dangerous. The same is true of confining skills development to ICT skills.

Equally at a time when the huge aspirations of SDG4 target 7 for global citizenship education and education for sustainable development have been agreed by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, it seems extraordinary that the global indicator for Target 4.1 should be concerned only with ‘at least a minimum proficiency in i) reading and ii) mathematics’.

Readers of the NORRAG Blog will find many further challenges to the global indicator development process in the latest issue of NORRAG News No 54: Education, Training and Agenda 2030.

A longer paper on this ‘lost in translation’ process can be had by writing to Kenneth King.

Kenneth King is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Social and Political Studies and in the School of Education in Edinburgh University. Email:

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.

Disclaimer: NORRAG’s blog offers a space for dialogue about issues, research and opinion on education and development. The views and factual claims made in NORRAG posts are the responsibility of their authors and are not necessarily representative of NORRAG’s policy or activities.

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