The 100-year Background and History of the 33 Lines in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and Targets for Education By Kenneth King

September 2015

By Kenneth King, Editor NORRAG News.

SDGs have reached the finishing line – or rather the starting line!

Goal4It’s official! The replacement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are formally finalized today, the 25th September 2015, when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) confirms the text that was already agreed by the UN Member States in early August. Of the 17 Goals and 169 Targets, just one Goal and 13 Targets concern education and training as a sector.

The Education Goal (SDG4), its ten Targets, and three other education related targets under other SDGs, cover all the usual sub-sectors of education – from early childhood to university, from adult literacy to technical and vocational training, and from scholarships to qualified teachers.

So what? Will anything be any different after the 25th September 2015?

Does the new Education SDG4 affect educational planning in the OECD countries, in the five BRICS, or in the developing countries? Will it affect international and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), bilateral and multilateral agencies, think tanks, education consultancies, and ministries of education and training world-wide? And what about the teaching of international and comparative education – will this capture and critically analyse the world’s latest development agenda for education?

The simple answer is NO and YES! – Of course, China, Brazil, Russia, UK, and USA are not going to change their own national education plans because of this UN decision. Nor are Oman, South Africa and Chile, to mention just a handful of countries with their own development plans.

But the NGOs, bilateral and multi-lateral agencies and education consultancies could profit from the SDG4 if there is some synergy between their programmes of work and the many sub-sectors of education and training mentioned in SDG4. It could positively influence also their future international funding.

The downside of SDG4, however, is that it covers everything! It is no longer just about securing Universal Primary Education (UPE), about Expanding Basic Learning Needs, or Eradicating Illiteracy. As SDG4 is about everything, it risks not being seen as a priority for primary education and gender equity, as with the MDGs, and not just being seen as a priority for the Education for All (EFA) goals as happened with the Dakar World Education Forum in 2000.

When there is no particular focus, as is the case with SDG4, it may be useful to look back over the last many decades of formulating global education goals, and to ask the question – why has target-setting become so universal in education just now in 2015?

There are just a few answers and reactions:

First, there is an attempt in the new development agenda to make sure that the Education Goal (SDG4) and its Targets apply to all countries everywhere. But, arguably, it doesn’t do so. Its mentions of secondary, technical and higher education are so general, and inclusive, that they cannot add anything to existing national policies.

Second, SDG4 doesn’t add much to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and its Article 26 on Education, except that it claims that there should be equal access for all to quality technical, vocational and tertiary education (emphasis added). By contrast, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was more balanced with its sentence: ‘Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.’ Many countries cannot afford to implement this SDG pledge either now or in 2030.  If they did pledge to do so along with all other UN Member States at the beginning of August 2015, it was surely more of an aspiration or a dream than a pledge.

Third, there is no attempt to say why any of these education areas are important investment areas as they were seen to be in the UNESCO regional conferences of the  1960s, in Jomtien in 1990, or in Dakar in 2000. In other words, the research rationale for investment is nowhere mentioned for Education, though it is mentioned for other Goals such as Health in Transforming our World. It is worth noting, by contrast, the full page advertisement taken by the Rockefeller Foundation in the New York Times on 24th September claiming ‘Economists worldwide agree: “Investing in Health Makes Economic Sense”’.

Fourth, there is no explicit discussion of how education can be beneficial inter-sectorally. Though there are many opportunities to do so, education is nowhere linked in Transforming our World to its potential impacts on health, fertility, employment, enterprise, and sustainable economic growth.

Fifth, the final version of the Goals and Targets in education still recognises the national level in many different ways. Indeed all the 17 Goals and their Targets explicitly take account of the national dimension. Only Goal 4 (Education), Goal 6 (Water and Sanitation), and Goal 7 (Energy) fail openly to take account of the national perspective. This is very surprising in the case of Education, since the tension between the global and the national is one that is critical to understanding the challenge of implementation of the new global agenda. Equally, the over 100 year history of target setting in education cannot be understood without examining the very long-standing trade-offs between national and global targets.

What can we celebrate in the Education Goal and its Targets?

Even though the Education Goal and its Targets lack the specificity and precision of the Health Goal and its no less than 13 Targets, it is surely worth celebrating the fact that all sub-sectors of education have been included in the SDG4. It is also commendable that the crucially important areas of ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ and ‘Global Citizenship Education’ have been included in the world’s new agenda.


This blog is partly based on Kenneth King’s BAICE Presidential Address, delivered on 16th September 2015 at the 2015 UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development. His full address will be available in due course as a working paper on the NORRAG site.

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. Kenneth is also the BAICE Honorary President for 2014-15.

>>View all NORRAG Blogs on SDG 4

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 4,300 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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