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What will happen to the Education Christmas Tree in January 2016? Global Governance and the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal for Education by Robert Palmer

By Robert Palmer, NORRAG.

baublesThe ambitious global education 2030 agenda needs to be incorporated into national education and skills plans, and supported by a global education architecture and means of implementation fit for purpose.      

After 3 years of debate, discussion, lobbying, committees, working groups, high (and low) level panels and intergovernmental negotiation the world now has its successor framework to the Education For All (EFA) Goals and education Millennium Development Goals; last month, agreement was reached on a single Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework. In about 10 days in New York, it is expected that this agreement will be formally adopted by heads of state at the UN Sustainable Development Summit.

An education Christmas tree

The education SDG agenda is certainly ambitious. There are some 13 education targets across 4 SDGs: Education has a stand-alone SDG (#4) with 7 targets (and 3 means of implementation targets), in addition to 3 other education targets under the SDGs for health (SDG#3), work (SDG#8), climate change (SDG#13). The ambition is to achieve ‘inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels – early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training’. In other words, almost the whole spectrum of education and training falls under this remit.[1]

Talking about the whole post-2015 framework, where baubles covering every imaginable issue are hung on the post-2015 Christmas tree, Melamed noted in 2012 that one outcome scenario for this framework would be that:

we’ll end up with a long list of disparate goals – all important in their own right, but together making up a list so long that governments will almost certainly ignore it.  The impact on actual lives would be close to nil.

Some might argue that what we have now certainly resembles an education Christmas tree. There was certainly acknowledgment at the UKFIET conference of the challenge of having so many education targets. Earlier this year, The Economist noted that having so many targets for the post-2015 agenda ‘means, in practice, no priorities at all’.

It will be what is delivered by 2030 that success will be judged against, and not the extent of this very ambitious education agenda.

Huge cost (and it’s bigger than is being discussed)

With huge ambition comes huge cost. The UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (GMR) team have estimated there to be a US$39 billion annual external financing gap[2] to achieve universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education of good quality in low and lower middle income countries.

This $39bn figure of course does not cover the full education SDG agenda; for example, it does not address cost implications related to targets for technical and vocational skills for employment (target 4.4), higher education (4.3), youth/adult literacy (4.6), or any of the education targets under SDGs #3, #18, #13.

Implementation concerns

In spite of all the discussion on what should be included in the Education SDG, there has arguably been:

  • no real discussion about the type of global governance structure needed to encourage and support the achievement of the education SDG and targets at the country level.
  • no adequate discussion about the means of implementation of the education SDG and targets.

We’ll address both these issues below.

An ‘appropriate global coordination mechanism’

Many of you will be aware that the Incheon Declaration of the May World Education Forum noted that to ‘support countries in implementing the 2030 education agenda’, there is a need for ‘an appropriate global coordination mechanism’ to coordinate technical advice, national capacity development and financial support.

However, no details on what this would involve have yet been divulged, only that it should include the Global Partnership for Education. In mid-August, the official SDG4 agencies (UNICEF, UNESCO, UNFPA, World Bank, and the UNHCR) met to discuss a SDG4 global coordination mechanism – but again no details have been shared yet.

If smiles are an indication, it was a good meeting.

If smiles are an indication, it was a good meeting.







Global influences and the implementation of the 2030 education agenda  

What global influences on educational planning are felt at country level that could affect education SDG implementation at country level?

Formal influences of education at the global level can include global goals and targets – such as the EFA Goals, the education MDGs and now the education SDG targets – as well as other global conventions, agreements, compacts etc. But to be effective these formal mechanisms need both:

  • a way of measuring progress/deviations from these rules/goals by tracking international indicators, and
  • a way of holding countries accountable for lack of progress/deviation.

There is now global agreement on the goal and targets of education under the SDG framework of course, but the issues of measurement and of accountability are not yet secured.

For measuring progress, global education monitoring will be via the renamed GMR, the Global Education Monitoring Report, as well as via an annual SDG Progress Report. The process of indicator development is still underway, however, and won’t be finalised until March 2016.

For accountability, there is no strong mechanism yet proposed in the SDG Outcome document, except:

  • Acknowledgement that accountability for the effective implementation of the SDG agenda lies at the country level; and,
  • An anticipated High Level Political Forum (UNGA) to oversee follow-up and review at global level.

Further, the SDG Outcome document calls for the creation of ‘quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data’ at country level. Civil society organisations, like the ONE Campaign, note that where such data exists and is transparently shared, ‘citizens [will] have the information they need to ensure that leaders keep their promises’.

Informal influences of education at the global level

There exist a set of informal influences of education that may not have been set up for the purpose of governing or regulating, but which clearly influence stakeholders when it comes to education; and, it might be argued, the power which they today exert has turned them (or the institutions which control them) into de facto governance mechanisms. Such influences include, for example:

  • the influence of data and indicators from assessments and testing (PISA, TIMSS), benchmarking and ranking approaches (e.g. uni rankings).
  • the influence of education and training strategies and policy papers, and the propagation of “best practice” knowledge, approaches, concepts (such as rate of return to education, value for money etc).
  • the influence that grants and loans have in recipient countries, and the influence that OECD-DAC countries have on the behaviour of international organisations that they financially contribute to.

These informal influences exist and will continue to steer national educational policy thinking in certain directions; whether this direction is aligned with the SDG direction is unclear.

The SDGs and means of implementation (MOI) targets

Above we referred to concerns about implementation. On the face of it, one might ask what the problem is. Unlike the MDGs, there is a stand-alone goal in the SDGs (#17) explicitly concerned with implementation, one that includes targets related to finance, capacity building, technology, trade and other issues. For example, under SDG#17, financing targets refer to the need to ‘strengthen domestic resource mobilization’, and that developed countries should implement fully their ODA commitments (including the 0.7% commitment). Indeed, if all ODA providing countries did fulfil this 0.7% commitment, then there would be no education financing gap; but the likelihood of this happening is questionable given recent trends.

In addition to this, MOI are mentioned under each of the 16 other SDGs. In fact, approximately one third of all 169 SDG targets are MOI targets! – and these are ‘of equal importance with the other Goals and targets’ (UN).

SDG#4 Implementation Targets

We noted above that there has been no adequate discussion about the means of implementation of the education SDG and targets. And we stand by this. The three MOI targets under the education SDG are summarised below.





In terms of implementing the very ambitious targets for education under SDG#4, these proposals for better and safer building, more scholarships, and more qualified teachers, don’t seem to go very far. In particular:

  • They say nothing about the need for an ‘appropriate global coordination mechanism’ that the Incheon Declaration called for or about any reform of the global architecture of education and training.
  • They say nothing of the financing needed: indeed, there were no explicit financing and funding targets for education in either the Addis or the UN Sustainable Development Summit outcome documents.

Moreover, the wording of many of the MOI targets, and not just those for SDG#4, appears to re-cast the education SDG, like the education MDG before it, as something applicable to developing countries.

Global ambition matched by national ambition?

We should not forget that the SDG ‘targets are defined as aspirational and global’ (UN), and that each Government is expected to ‘set[..] its own national targets’.

This whole issue is not about global compliance to a global set of education targets. The global targets are meant to be adopted / adapted to the country level; it is therefore about national level implementation of nationally agreed targets – that draw on the global ambition of the SDGs.

As CSOs have urged in relation to the whole SDG agenda, national strategies that incorporate the complete set of SDG education targets into national plans are needed as soon as possible.

Christmas trees in January

On 1st January 2016, when the SDG clock starts ticking, many Christmas trees around the world will be losing their pine needles and having their baubles stripped. Without a strong focus on implementation at country level – according to defined national ambition – supported by some alignment of the formal and informal global influences of education with the education SDG and targets, there could be many baubles falling off the education Christmas tree too.


Robert Palmer is an independent education and skills consultant. He also supports the Editor of NORRAG News and runs NORRAG NEWSBite. Email: Tweets @SkillsImpact

Further reading

Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (2015) The Elephant in the Room: Global Governance and the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal for Education. 2015 UKFIET Conference.

Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (2014) Post-2015 and the Global Governance of Education and Training, NORRAG Working Paper #7 (December 2014).

Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (2014) The Elephant in the Post-2015 Education Room: What about the Global Governance of Education and Training? Part 1 and Part 2. NORRAG NEWSBite Blog, 3rd and 5th November 2014.

>>View all NORRAG Blogs on Sustainable Development Goals

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 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

[1] However issues like adult literacy and numeracy, or the issue of lifelong learning for adults in general comes through weakly in the targets.

[2] This refers to the difference between the est. cost and the estimated available domestic resources.

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1 Response

  1. Helen Abadzi

    The documents and conferences are mere preparations for a Christmas tree in New York. It is done for and by those who have jobs in international agencies. The rest of the world simply has no processing power to maintain in working memory 265 or so vague targets.
    It’s a pity, because we have the cognitive science to specify them better. In particular we can specify the basic skills targets quite well.

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