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10 Sep 2013

Post-1990; Post-2000; Post-2015 – Education and Skills – North & South

By Kenneth King, NORRAG.


The 12th UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development opens today covering the topic of education and Development Post 2015. NORRAG is involved in organizing one of the sessions on development goals and development assistance. NORRAG NEWS 49 will be on the theme of ‘Education and Development in the Post-2015 Landscapes?’



13 years ago, in April 2000, we published NORRAG News (NN) No. 26, entirely dedicated to the review of the World Education Forum in Dakar. Five months later at the Millennium Summit, we did not run a special issue or section of NN, nor later on when the Millennium Development Goals were declared. What’s different in 2013?


HLP Report 2013 vs Dakar 2013?


By contrast, 13 years later, there appears to be more attention being paid by those in the education community to the High Level Panel (HLP) Report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda than to the Thematic Consultation on Education held in Dakar in March 2013. It remains to be seen if there is an international groundswell of interest in the World Conference on Education for All to be held in South Korea in April 2015. But for the moment, it would appear that the continuation of the MDGs, in some form, is gaining much more traction internationally than debates about the continuation of the six Education for All (EFA) Goals from Dakar 2000.


Still Northern Tsunami, Southern Calm around Post-2015?


Robert Palmer and I have argued in an article published in September 2013 (International Journal of Educational Development 33 (2013) 409–425) that there is very much more activity around post-2015 in some of the Northern industrialised countries than in the Global South – whether in the emerging economies or in lower income countries. This still seems to be broadly the case, as public debate around the MDGs in India remains muted, and in several other countries, e.g. S. Korea, the discussions about post-2015 have been virtually ‘non-existent’, except at the highest level. The same would seem to be the case in South Africa, where there is a mini-tsunami in high policy circles, perhaps linked to South Africa and Ireland being asked to facilitate preparation for the debate on post-2015 in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) later this month.


The aid connections of the post-MDG discourse


Another reason why there is much more post-2015 activity in certain industrialised countries is that there are potentially crucial connections between any final post-2015 agenda and the ‘aid industry’. If Education, HIV Aids, or Maternal Mortality, for example, were not to be featured in the next development agenda, it would have very immediate consequences for the international NGOs, think tanks, consultancies and development agencies which are concerned with those areas. This may help to explain why countries like India, South Africa and China which are not aid-dependent see the tenor of the post-MDG discourse as not being particularly relevant to their situations, and not least as they don’t yet have major NGOs and consultancy firms that are operating internationally.


MDG impact: Much ado about nothing?


In the debates around post-2015 goals, targets and indicators, there has been much discussion about the very positive impact of the MDGs in many different developing and emerging economies over the last 13 years. Suddenly, just a few days ago, Howard Friedman published a bombshell under the title: Causal Inference and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Assessing Whether There Was an Acceleration in MDG Development Indicators Following the MDG Declaration (August 2013).  What is his conclusion? Here is the summary:


Results: The general result was that there was no trend in statistically significant accelerations in the MDG indicators after 2000. Rather the results for all four sets of reported analysis were consistent in that about half of the MDG indicators exhibited no acceleration or deceleration during the time period from 1992 to 2008 and about one-third exhibited accelerations BEFORE 2001. Contrarily, nearly all of the control indicators had no change (neither acceleration nor deceleration) during the time period. (Friedman, 2013: 4)


One concern is that there are several key countries such as China where progress on the MDG indicators had dramatically taken place before 2000.  Thus China’s 9-year compulsory education policy had been fully implemented before 2000, and yet in some quarters this national success became somehow linked to the alleged success of the MDGs.


The switch from access to quality but without reductionism


One of the most widespread conclusions around the two Education MDGs is that they emphasized access over quality, which had been a key element in the six EFA Goals in Dakar 2000. However, there is quality and quality. Dakar 2000 illustrated the dangers of loose phrasing in its use of the term ‘life skills’ which provided a problem for the global monitoring of skills development right up to 2012. In the same way, if quality gets translated into minimalist ‘learning outcomes’, then the resulting quantification of quality may become a new straitjacket for teaching and learning.  In other words the narrowing of the EFA agenda of Dakar 2000 by the MDGs looked like it might be narrowed further by a crude numbers game approach to quality.


Twin-track (EFA &MDG) processes to post-2015?


Fortunately, both the Dakar 2013 and the HLP Report of May 2013 have emphasized that education is about far more than basic literacy and numeracy. There is a sense, therefore, in which these two 2013 reports return, full circle, to the spirit of the EFA Goals of Dakar 2000, or even to the expanded vision of EFA in Jomtien 1990. The fact that the HLP Goal of providing quality education and lifelong learning covers, through its targets, all the original six EFA Goals except for Adult Literacy potentially weakens the case for a continuation of the EFA process. There will nevertheless be an EFA stocktaking with a series of national and regional reviews over the next 18 months, culminating in a Global Education Conference in South Korea in April 2015. Maintaining the two-track EFA & MDG race towards 2015 will however require a great deal of energy on the part of the main EFA host, UNESCO.


Equity, inclusion and leaving no one behind


The other ‘winner’ along with education quality in the debates around post-2015 so far has been equity. But the HLP aspiration to ‘leave no one behind’ is challenged not only and most obviously in conflict situations but also where there are minority language populations which face ‘equitable quality education’ in languages which they do not speak or initially understand. The challenge of moving from the MDG of reducing poverty to the HLP Goal of ending poverty has major implications for school systems. It is argued, for instance, for Latin America that the school systems, so far from compensating for inequalities at birth, actually reproduce and reinforce inequality. In other words, education may be part of the problem rather than part of the solution unless it is structurally reformed. Equally, if four/fifths of the world’s poor live in middle income countries, then the targets of the next development agenda cannot only be the traditionally poorest developing countries.


Paying for development agendas


Much more attention has been given to arguing the case for specific goals and targets than to paying for them; so it is important to recall that the HLP argues that the bulk of the money to finance sustainable development has to come from domestic sources. Where there is continuing need for external funding for so-called developing countries, the main part of long-term finance will not be aid from industrialised countries but from private capital, according to the HLP. Instead of declaring a whole series of carefully framed, well-intentioned goals and only then realizing the importance of financing them, arguably the post-2015 agenda should learn from the Monterrey process, but not wait like Monterrey for two years, but sort out development financing in principle in 2015 itself.


Skills askew?


Skills was one of the casualties of the Dakar Education Forum of 2000, and there was considerable effort to ensure that both in the HLP and in the Thematic Consultation on Education in March 2013 vocational and technical skills were mentioned in their own right. Sadly, the HLP report still looks at education through the lens of outdated rates of return studies: ‘A study of 98 countries found that each additional year of education results in, on average, a 10 per cent increase in lifetime earnings’ (HLP, 2013: 36). It is very surprising that these old studies should have been used when, apart from other weaknesses, they pay absolutely no attention to the quality of schooling, the very item that the HLP judges so important in its illustrative goal of ‘quality education’.  It is a pity also that the HLP presents the same outdated rates of return for primary, secondary and higher education (Ibid. 37), and especially when they make the point that education is about far more than basic literacy and numeracy. Fortunately, the rates of return don’t have a return for technical and vocational skills. But it is unfortunate when so very much has been learned about skills, that they end up with just a sentence or two on skills, linked to the labour market: ‘Skills learned in school must also help young people to get a job’.


Lobbies and landscapes


There are many different interest groups concerned with the case for education and training post-2015. They cover early childhood, adult literacy, life-long learning, rights to education, non-instrumental approaches to learning, disabilities education, skills development, good teaching, and higher education, – to mention just a few. Boiling this essential complexity of education into a goal and a handful of targets for the next fifteen years after 2015 was always going to be an impossibly ambitious exercise. It now looks virtually certain that Education and Training will be included in their own right in the next development agenda. But we should recall, from the history of the six EFA Goals, that ensuring that several different dimensions of education are covered turns out to be the easy part of the exercise. The real challenge is to secure attention and commitment to their support and implementation.


Kenneth King is the Editor of NORRAG News. He is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Email:

This blog is based on the editorial for NORRAG NEWS 49 (see below)

Further reading


NORRAG Working Paper #1: Education and Skills in the Post-2015 Global Landscape: History, Context, Lobbies and Visions, by Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (September 2012)


NORRAG Working Paper #4: Post-2015 Agendas: Northern Tsunami, Southern Ripple? The Case of Education and Skills, by Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (April 2013); also in International Journal of Educational Development 33 (2013) 409–425


NORRAG NEWS 49 Education and Development in the Post-2015 Landscapes? Free online mid-September 2013 at



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