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Dakar Consensus: Equitable, Quality Learning for All

Senegalese Talibes, or Islamic students, recite verses from the Koran at a Dara or Koranic school in Thies, 70 kilometers (50 miles) east of the capital Dakar (REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly).

More than 120 education stakeholders from civil society, youth, private sector, foundations, academics, governments and the United Nations met last week in Dakar, Senegal to review global education progress achieved since 2000, discuss the remaining challenges, and develop recommendations around an education goal for the post-2015 development framework.

Gordon Brown succinctly captured the spirit of the conference discussion in a blog based on a video message he delivered to the Dakar conference, writing that “universal learning is a goal of goals, or a super goal,” because without education we cannot unlock the other development goals, such as employment opportunity, gender equality, environmental care and good health. He concludes that “this is not just about education. It is about achieving the promise of globalization: that there is opportunity for all. Education should be reversing, not reinforcing, inequalities. Let us make sure that with stepping stone targets for education that focus not just on enrolment but on learning too, we can make the next 15 years even more successful for education than the last.”

In their deliberations, the delegates reviewed a wide range of existing proposals and inputs, including recommendations from the U.N.-led global thematic consultation on education, on how to address these challenges. Despite differences on a range of issues, a clear consensus on four priorities emerged during the discussion. The organizers summarized the deliberations as a call for: “equitable, quality life-long learning for all.” The four areas of consensus include:

  • Equity: A post-2015 education goal must include a clear focus on reaching the marginalized, and in particular populations affected by conflict and disaster were frequently mentioned, as were people living in poverty, ethnic minorities, rural girls and those living with disabilities.
  • Quality Learning: The goal must also include a strong emphasis on improving the quality of learning outcomes and experiences, something which the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have failed to do.
  • Expanding Access to More than Just Primary Education: The goal must include a continuum of learning opportunities from early childhood on.
  • Cross-Cutting Nature of Education: The post-2015 development agenda must include education as a cross-cutting issue that supports other development goals. One way for this to be operationalized is to produce targets that integrate education is into other development sectors such as health and the environment. The idea of conceiving of education as helping building resilience across a range of other issues was introduced in this light.

A similar consensus around these themes of equity, learning and the need for a learning continuum from early childhood through adolescence was cited in the summary report of the global thematic consultation on education: Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This report, which is still in draft form, presents the main themes from the education consultations that have taken place since late 2012, including the global online forums focused on equitable access to education, quality of learning, global citizenship, jobs and skills, and governance and financing of education. The report highlights two priority themes, or imperatives, for the post-2015 development goals on which there is consensus within the global education community: equitable access and equitable quality education, and specifically learning, within a rights-based approach that focuses on tackling inequalities.

Priority One: Equitable Access

As the report from the global thematic consultation on education notes, equitable access to all levels of education remains a key gap in the education agenda. The education Millennium Development Goal focuses on universal primary enrollment; however, there is abundant evidence that education begins at birth and continues in post-primary opportunities, whether through secondary schooling or nonformal technical and vocational education. Thus, the global education report asserts the need for a “foundational commitment” in the post-2015 framework to a goal focused on equitable access across the learning continuum. Within the report, the learning continuum is conceived of as universal coverage for early childhood care and education, from birth to school entry (0 to 8 years), through to basic education, or nine years of schooling that includes lower secondary education.

Priority Two: Equitable Quality Education, Specifically Learning

The global education report states that good quality equitable education and learning emerge “at the heart of the post-2015 education agenda” and that there is an emerging consensus on an education goal with learning as a proxy measure of quality. The report notes that this could be couched in broad terms such as ensuring that all children are prepared for school entry and “leave school with measurable learning standards and the skills, knowledge and values to become responsive, active and productive members of society and the world.”

This is in line with the recent vision laid out by the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF)— a global effort engaging over 800 people, the majority from the global south, across 70 countries— in its report, Toward Universal Learning: What Every Child Should Learn. The report presents a broad, holistic framework for learning beyond literacy and numeracy. While being able to read and write are critical for enabling all girls and boys to access a broader education, these core skills are far from sufficient. In addition to reading and numeracy, children need to learn relevant transferable skills such critical thinking, problem solving, civic values, mental health and well-being, and 21st century skills such as communication and technological literacy, to prepare them for the workforce and to be active, productive members of their communities.

The global education report and discussion in Dakar also highlighted the importance of having equity as a cross-cutting aspect underpinning these two priority areas of equitable access and equitable learning, with a strong focus on marginalized and vulnerable groups. In particular, gender equality and the needs of children and youth affected by emergencies have been singled out.

The Next Challenge: Targets and Metrics

As noted in the global report and discussed at the Dakar conference, now that there is broad agreement on the themes of an education goal, the challenge will become setting targets and metrics. Across all discussions, there is a debate about balancing global and country-level goals and metrics. It is clear that global goals must reflect national priorities and that more attention must be paid to neglected contexts such as conflict and post-conflict contexts, as well as to those countries with the least promising education metrics. However, one of the lessons from the Millennium Development Goals is that clear internationally comparable measures of progress have acted as a significant spur to global progress. Striking this balance between such goals and allowing for national or regional-level discretion is one critical question, not just for education in the post-2015 framework, but for all policy areas.

The Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) met last month to discuss these challenges and identified a small number of measures for tracking at the global level that should feed into the discussion of targets and metrics moving forward. The task force emphasized the need to operationalize these while simultaneously helping to build measurement capacity at the national level. The six areas for measurement that are important to enable children and youth to constructively participate in a globalized world are:

  1. Access to and completion of learning opportunities through enrollment and completion indicators.
  2. Early childhood experiences that result in readiness for primary school through a school readiness indicator.
  3. The ability to read and understand a variety of texts through a learning to read indicator and reading to learn indicator at the primary and secondary level.
  4. The ability to use numbers and apply this knowledge to real-life situations through numeracy indicators at the primary and secondary level.
  5. An adaptable, flexible skill set to meet the demands of the 21st century through an indicator still to be developed (e.g. collaborative problem solving).
  6. Exposure to a breadth of learning opportunities across all seven domains (physical well-being, social and emotional, culture and the arts, literacy and communication, learning approaches and cognition, numeracy and mathematics, science and technology) through an indicator still to be developed.

Information for these areas of measurement would be collected using internationally comparable assessments in some cases, such as reading comprehension and mathematics, and using alternative assessments for others. Data collected against these domains of measurement should describe average achievement levels in addition to progress over time and equity across groups (girls/boys, urban/rural and wealth levels, at a minimum). The work of the LMTF on this front will continue to inform the discussion on targets and metrics within the education community and an open consultation process will begin in mid-April.

The Dakar meeting discussions and outcomes will result in a synthesis report that combines all of the consultation outcomes to date, which will eventually inform the deliberations of the secretary-general’s High Level Panel (HLP) this spring and the secretary-general’s report to the U.N. General Assembly this fall. An explicit education goal focused on equitable access to learning opportunities should resonate well with the HLP as it addresses issues that are integral to ensuring sustainable development, equity and inclusive growth in the post-2015 development agenda. It is also a goal that is relevant to high, medium and low-income countries alike. The focus on equity, learning and a learning continuum from early childhood through to adolescence will also bind together the education discussion within the process to develop sustainable development goals with the post-2015 development framework. For the education community, this prioritization of equitable, quality life-long learning within the post-2015 development agenda will help bring a more coherent approach to the post-2015 development framework and the Education for All goals by addressing the most notable gaps and weaknesses between them.

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