It’s Time for an Education Breakthrough: Coming Together for 2015 and the Agenda Beyond

The stars of the global development galaxy infrequently align to provide the education sector with an opportunity to advance progress for girls and boys around the world. However, there is currently a unique opportunity to put forth a common vision to reinforce the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and to chart a forward-looking agenda for the post-2015 development goals that builds upon collective progress and lessons learned.

Three global policy windows are available to advance a common agenda:

  1. Discussions and processes for establishing a new set of global development goals, following the expiration of the MDGs in 2015, are underway in the United Nations.
  2. UNESCO has also started parallel conversations on the post-2015 EFA agenda.
  3. The U.N. Secretary General will soon launch a five-year global education initiative that will span the time period leading up to and following 2015.

The Need for Action: Progress is Slowing 

Recent numbers from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics and the Global Monitoring Report suggest that despite advances in improving access to and the quality of education since 2000, progress is stalling. In Africa, the number of out-of-school children is actually increasing – not decreasing – due to population growth. To address this challenge of access and completion, evidence suggests that quality may be more severe than we thought. For example, recent studies estimate that nearly 200 million children are still unable to read despite spending several years in school, and in some regions of the world poor quality education causes parents to take their children out of school before they complete primary school. Moving backward in the final stretch to 2015 would discredit the progress made up to this point in the name of the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals.

Status Check: A Lot of Uncoordinated Activity

Based on an initial, non-exhaustive assessment, there are over 20 current education-relevant global initiatives, campaigns, processes or opportunities organized by multilateral institutions, bilateral donor agencies, civil society and country actors. These activities have the potential to raise the profile of international education goals. Although the level of activity is exciting, the multiple activities run the risk of uncoordinated messaging and duplicative—or even contradictory—efforts. While debate is healthy and necessary, better coordination is needed to remain connected at a strategic and functional level. Otherwise, standalone activities may not galvanize the political and financial attention needed to meet collective challenges.

The Opportunity at Stake

Taking advantage of the three global policy windows could reposition education in the center of the global agenda and realize the broader set of development goals. The following opportunities should not be passed by:

  • Opportunity to define measureable, relevant goals. While recognizing the positive progress made as a result of the Education for All agenda, it is important to also reflect on where improvements could be made. Through healthy, targeted debate in this round of revisiting the EFA agenda, it is possible to add more specificity to the goals in order to move forward with measured progress.
  • Opportunity to link education to the broader development agenda. While engaged in conversations about EFA, the education sector must simultaneously have a common strategy for the broader post-2015 development agenda. It is important to be able to justify the importance of education to achieving other development goals and explain how it links to the potential post-2015 frameworks without being afraid to make the case for standalone education goals that articulate the outcomes important for productive societies, such as equity and learning. The education sector must also be prepared to develop a baseline for whatever goals we recommend to these discussions.
  • Opportunity to leverage support at highest political level. It is not often that the United Nations secretary- general decides to champion the cause central to the global education community. By calling his initiative “Education First,” the secretary-general indicates that he is ready to give the education sector increased political will for 2015. With numerous U.N. Special Envoys for health, climate change and conflict over the past several years, and with none devoted to education, the recent appointment of Gordon Brown as his special envoy for Global Education reinforces the secretary-general’s renewed commitment. The education community must now rally its networks, stand behind the secretary general’s vision and participate in the debates that stem from the initiative. Failure to follow his lead would lend poorly to the education sector and be a disservice to the millions of children – both out of school and struggling to learn – who could stand to benefit.

The Timeline

There is a limited timeline to seize these opportunities. However, given the high stakes of the policy windows, the education sector must organize and redouble its efforts to take full advantage of them.

  • The U.N. Post-2015 Millennium Development Goal Process: The process is already underway to develop the next set of goals led by a U.N. Development Program and U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs Task Force—with the next six months critical in the lead up to high-level discussions in September 2013. U.N. agencies are holding thematic consultations (including UNESCO, UNICEF, ILO, UNDP, OCHA and more) from now until January 2013. While some of these consultations will be education focused, others will not. It is essential that stakeholders link education to all areas of development in the consultations. There will also be national and regional consultations in 50 countries from Angola to Zambia as part of this process. National education partners must be mobilized and supported to ensure that a few key messages are present in these conversations. 
  • The Education for All Framework: While the agency, regional and national MDG consultations are taking place, UNESCO will also convene on the post-2015 EFA agenda. Although discussions have started, the consultation and debate period may not take place soon enough to reinforce education’s presence in the post-2015 MDG consultation process. This is a sector-wide challenge that must be addressed and opportunities must be created to ensure processes are coordinated and discussions build off one another.
  • The Secretary General’s Education First Initiative: A high-level steering committee, technical advisory group and global heads of state champions group have been selected by the secretary-general to lead the new initiative, which will launch in September at the U.N. General Assembly in conjunction with global outreach efforts. The education sector has the opportunity to harness the five-year span of this initiative to position itself as a central priority for global development leading up to and beyond 2015.

What is the Education Sector’s Message? Moving Toward a Common Vision

The good news is that there is much the education sector has already agreed upon. Given the competing timelines it will be difficult, but not impossible, to engage in full debate within the education community while at the same time making recommendations to the post-2015 global development agenda. There are several steps that could be taken to advance a collective vision.

  1. Embrace Education for All. First and foremost, the education sector must embrace the Education for All agenda as its foundation. A pledge by 164 countries in 2000, the agenda is a starting point of consensus for the global community.
  2. Move forward with agreed upon objectives. While the education sector does not have to agree on everything – it can start to agree on some things, including the ideas that education is a basic human right and that all children deserve a quality education. Education can be defined differently based on context and relevancy, but quality education means that young people learn basic skills necessary to thrive in society. This includes both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Additionally opportunities to learn should be equitable and not only available to a privileged few. Special attention should be given to achieving gender equity and addressing education in emergency and conflict settings, children with disabilities, and other marginalized populations who we have collectively failed.
  3. Advance the discussions to include outcomes and critical transition points, and insert consensus moments into the broader development agenda dialogue along the way. The Education for All discussion should draw upon our collective success and lessons learned. The Global Compact on Learning report, developed by the Center for Universal Education in collaboration with more than 80 organizations, highlights some of the vital challenges the education sector has confronted in realizing EFA that deserve more attention: the provision of early childhood development opportunities, ensuring positive learning outcomes are achieved in the early years and focusing on transition to and completion of relevant post-primary education, particularly for the most marginalized. This can be a starting point for forging a common policy agenda on education and learning as we move toward 2015.
  4. Do not be afraid of learning, but be afraid of a bad learning agenda. The next set of discussions must add specificity to Education for All, especially in regards to goal six’s call for measurable learning outcomes in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills. Learning is the essence of EFA; no child should to go to school and not learn. It is time for us to form a careful and thoughtful consensus, setting forth an ambitious vision for a learning agenda that can rally political and civil society support.

    These broad discussions are important because we should be very afraid of learning done wrong. The counterfactual to a strong consensus on learning could be emphasis on high-stakes testing and pay-for-performance schemes without regard to critical contextual factors. The education sector knows these are not effective ways to advance the teaching and learning process at a national or global level.

  5. Participate in global discussions about what constitutes learning. The education sector must have productive discussions about what it wants young people to achieve through education. Reading and math alone are a much too narrow way to think about education. There are many noncognitive skills and attitudes that are essential to global citizenship. It is time to have the following discussions: Are there learning standards that are collectively valued? If so, should they be measured? And if the answer is yes, how can this be done to support the teaching and learning process and allow policymakers to have enough information to identify issues of equity within and across countries? One process is the Global Learning Metrics Task Force, hosted by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics and the Brookings Institution and chaired by representatives from U.N. agencies, civil society and the private sector. The concept is to have an open forum for debate, starting now, to feed into the global agenda-setting processes before it is too late.

Many of the pieces that need to be in place are underway. However, they must become better aligned to not lose sight of the 2015 goals and make a significant impact over the next six critical months in influencing the post-2015 agenda to make sure that education and learning for all children and youth is central.