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Thank Goodness! Education has Made it to the Finishing Line in the Global Post-2015 High Level Panel Olympics


By Kenneth King, NORRAG and University of Edinburgh.


goals-runningRelief all round!! The report of the High Level Panel (HLP) on Post-2015 has just gone public. The International NGOs, think tanks, development agencies and policy makers who have been concerned about whether ‘Education’ would make it to the HLP finishing line can relax. Education came in third, after Ending Poverty and Empowering Girls and Women, in the list of 12 illustrative goals and targets. Both  ‘Health’ and ‘Education’ were mentioned more than 80 times in a document of 101 pages, with only ‘Poverty’ and ‘Sustainable’ being more frequent, at 131 and 185 times respectively.


But, frankly, most of the bodies promoting an education goal over the last year and longer had assumed that Education would reach the end of the race; the worry was about what shape it would be in when it got there and how it would look. Would it just comprise a basic education learning goal? Would there be any link to skills? Would early childhood education be mentioned? And what about adult literacy?


Again, most of those lobbying for particular dimensions of education-and-skills in any final goal can relax. The HLP has covered and confirmed the importance of many of the most crucial aspects of basic education, from early childhood, through primary and lower secondary, to skills development.  Here is the illustrative goal and its country targets:


HLP targets educ

Debates & Controversies; Winners & Losers; Positives & Negatives


We shall mention just a few of the debates that may arise from the positioning of the Education goal and its four country targets in the text of Annex II of the HLP.


First, the fate of adult illiteracy and of any set of Post-EFA Goals.


Compared with the six suggested goals/targets of Jomtien (1990) and the six EFA Dakar goals (2000), there are no less than four key dimensions of education that are targeted in the HLP:  Pre-primary (or early childhood); primary education; lower secondary; and skills for work, for both youth and adults. No one expected higher education to make it into the education goal.


But those constituencies concerned with the fact that there were still over 775 million illiterate adults in the world in 2010 will be deeply disappointed that a document that aims to ‘end  poverty’ and ‘empower girls and women’ did not also seek to  ‘end illiteracy’, especially when the majority of illiterates are female. The absence of an adult literacy target will be particularly galling when right up front in the main HLP text it is stated boldly that:


‘The Panel believes there is a chance now to do something that has never before been done – to eradicate extreme poverty, once and for all, and to end hunger, illiteracy, and preventable deaths.’ [emphasis added]


If the adult literacy constituency worldwide will certainly be shocked that the chance to ‘end… illiteracy’ has not, logically, been translated into an appropriate education target, it may not be the only loser.


Arguably, those concerned with the importance of developing a new set of Education for All (EFA) Goals may find that the HLP has taken much of the wind out of their sails. The HLP has covered most dimensions of the six Dakar goals, including quality and learning outcomes which were missing in the MDGs. So the Post-EFA constituency may turn out to be a loser unless they can refocus around the needs of adult illiterates, and emphasise very differently the four country education targets in the HLP report.


Second, what about the Trade-offs on Access, Completion and Learning Outcomes?


It will be recalled that the failure to retain the concern with learning and with quality from Jomtien and Dakar in the MDGs was one of the key lessons from the last 13 years. What, then, has happened to access, completion and learning in these HLP targets? There are some intriguing trade-offs:


Target 3a on Pre-Primary only encourages increased access and completion but has no comment on learning or measurable standards.


Target 3b on Primary assumes universal access but also has completion and minimum learning standards.


Target 3c on Lower Secondary includes access for all, but the percentage of those reaching measurable learning standards has to be determined locally or nationally. This must surely weaken the target. Why should primary have a learning standard for all, regardless of location, even if minimum, but lower secondary not have a universal learning standard?


Target 3d on Skills … for Work, like pre-primary, only has an increased access criterion, and the learning standard is just taken as ‘skills needed for work’. Yet elsewhere, in the Executive Summary of the main text, it is said that ‘We should ensure that everyone has what they need to grow and prosper, including access to quality education and skills’ (emphasis added). In other words like the promise to end adult illiteracy, the main text has a universal pledge on access to quality skills, but the final target only talks about an ‘increase’ in the number of young and adult men and women accessing skills. There is no learning outcome mentioned except that the skills should be ‘needed for work’. Of course the skills needed for work in the massive informal sectors of many countries or in informal employment in the so-called formal sectors are very different from the skills needed for decent work.


Third, country percentages for targets weaken the targets dramatically.


Like Jomtien which only had six suggested targets for countries to consider, the HLP has phrased a very large number of its 54 targets in terms of percentages to be determined nationally or locally. Essentially, this very understandable device makes for a two-tier set of targets. Half the targets are for universal application with no national percentages suggested, such as ‘End child marriage’ or ‘End preventable infant or under-5 deaths’. And half are left to the countries to determine.


In the case of the Education Goal, only one of the four targets is for universal application (primary education); the other three targets are all left for different  country percentages to be attached.


There is also a surprising anomaly in this two-tier approach when we consider skills needed for work. In the target statement, it is left to countries to determine the percentage or the scale of increase in skills; yet in the main text of the HLP under ‘Potential Impacts’, it is boldly stated that there could be by 2030: ‘200 million more young people employed with the skills they need to get good work’ (HLP, p.19). This quantitative potential impact figure in the main text sits awkwardly with the illustrative goal and targets in the Annex II.


Fourth, there is a challenge of presenting Education and Skills as a cross-cutting Goal in relation to creating Jobs, Sustainable Livelihoods and Equitable Growth.


The Jobs-Livelihoods-Growth Goal, like Education, has three targets which are left to national decisions about percentages, and one which is universal (universal access to financial services and infrastructure…). But one of the country target statements attached to the Goal is: ‘8a. Increase the number of good and decent jobs and livelihoods by x’. However, under Potential Impacts, an actual figure is produced: ‘470 million more workers with good jobs and livelihoods’. Undoubtedly, the iconic figures about the possible numbers of decent jobs and of skills, or of reduction in hunger (1.2 bn), or connections to electricity (1.2 billion) are tempting to include, but they point up a contradiction between leaving the decisions to the country level, and offering a potential, numerical, global target.


Fifth, the HLP has sought successfully to fulfill a listening mission.


The HLP’s treatment of education and skills certainly confirms that they have been listening to the many different constituencies which have been aiming their suggested goals and targets at them:  i. The very phrasing of the HLP’s illustrative goal for education draws directly from the Overarching Goal of the Global Consultation on Education in Dakar in March 2013. ii. The discussion about skills is sufficiently nuanced to distinguish basic skills, non-cognitive, life skills, and technical and vocational skills. iv. The HLP clearly listened to what young people told them about wanting education and skills beyond primary. ‘Not just formal learning but life skills and vocational training to prepare them for jobs’ (HLP. p.2). It is vitally important that the HLP does not in fact present these skill sets as alternatives, but rather as all being ‘needed to build capacity and professionalism in governments and business, especially in fragile states’ (HLP. p.37).


Sixth, Jobs, Livelihoods, Work, Growth, and Enabling Environments.


We have mentioned already Goal 8’s illustrative target to increase the number of good and decent jobs and livelihoods by some agreed country percentage. But Goal 8 also proposes a target to decrease the number of young people ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEETs) by some country percentage. NEETs is, however, very much a phenomenon of developed, mostly OECD countries with unemployment benefits for the youth who can’t find jobs. It has no meaning for the majority of developing countries. It is perhaps understandable that, in the crisis of youth unemployment in OECD countries, the HLP should target NEETs, but this neglects the needs of the great majority of young people worldwide who are not in education, employment or training but are in the vast informal economies of so many countries. The HLP does acknowledge ‘informal employment’, and, equally, it recognizes the crucial role of both national and global enabling environments. It is perhaps a pity that HLP’s valuable recognition of skills needed for work, NEETs, and good and decent jobs is not more powerfully linked to enabling macro-economic, political and social environments.


A last word.


The HLP education race has more winners than losers, more positives than negatives. While it does not check every box highlighted in the post-2015 thematic consultations on education, the HLP report is a good start. It is hoped that its messages and illustrative goal on education, along with the accompanying targets, will help to stimulate more discussion and debate and encourage an even stronger treatment of education and skills in the final post-2015 goals to be determined by UN member states. While the HLP education race may have finished, the post-2015 marathon still has two years left to run.   


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:

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2 Responses

  1. Sheldon Shaeffer

    Just a quick comment — the last big literacy conference (Brazil) had, as far as I know, no agenda item dealing with the post-2015 agenda — and I have not seen any “lobby” (as you call them) led, for example, by UIE or ICAE, promoting the literacy cause. And so the result?

    Date: Fri, 31 May 2013 08:11:06 +0000 To:

  2. Mike

    Let me make three specific observations in passing. It is certainly good that nutrition gets a specific mention but there is nothing on obesity. I would not classify a person in informal employment as a NEET and question the suggestion that this is a specifically OECD phenomenon with no relevance worldwide. I find it surprising that major documents of this kind still talk about ‘access’ rather than ‘participation’ as I’d thought that this terminology debate had been won by common sense some time ago.

    My own particular concern, as many NORRAG members know, is with advocating that education – as entirely distinct from training – should be fun. Consequently, I would have liked (but had not expected) to have seen a clear aspiration along the lines of ‘Children are enjoying Learning’. However, each of the 12 Goals may reasonably be regarded as contributing to a Supergoal of universal human happiness and fulfilment – and I still hold out hope for EFA incorporating this notion of education being in itself a pleasurable end in its next generation of objectives.

    The HLP report has educational implications far beyond the specifics of Goal 3 – the twelve (illustrative and, as yet, non-numerical) Goals come right at the end, tempting specific-interest agencies to identify the relevant one and rejoice that “we got a mention”. Notably, each of the Five Transformations (Leave no one behind… Put sustainable development at the core… Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth… Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all… Forge a new global partnership) and the call for a data revolution have, at the very least, profound curriculum and/or educational planning implications. So I feel it an entirely understandable but major error to concentrate upon a particular tree while ignoring the remainder of the forest.

    As you say, Goal 3 covers and confirms “the importance of many of the most crucial aspects of basic education, from early childhood, through primary and lower secondary, to skills development”. While there is no explicit commitment (in terms of a specific target) to ending illiteracy, on my reading of the report itself, the recognition of lifelong learning, along with the determination to eradicate poverty and to provide everyone with ‘the skills required for work’, do imply a commitment to addressing the needs of adult illiterates. A new EFA Goal should take that forward very specifically.

    As you note, the HLP’s treatment of education and skills “confirms that they have been listening to the many different constituencies which have been aiming their suggested goals and targets at them”. Unlike the MDG, this is for all of us, not just the ‘developing world’. Yet the issuance of the report has hardly grabbed the headlines. For instance, the required mind-set shift from “reducing” to “ending” poverty and hunger necessitates a major and most newsworthy leap forward – but it has not been mentioned through the broadcast media nor in the broadsheets or periodicals that I’ve encountered in recent days.

    As the Report makes clear, “this is a challenge for every country on earth”, “mutual benefit”, “mutual respect” and “solidarity” in the face of the collective nature of the challenges we face as a planet. But if few beyond those in or studying the aid business know about this seminal development, how can it possibly achieve its lofty aspirations. I doubt if anyone else in my western European home village has heard about this document – let alone the potential beneficiaries in those African countries where I have recently been working. 0.01 per cent of the world are getting excited about something that the remaining 99.99 per cent have yet to hear about. Not entirely the best basis for a worldwide revolution.

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