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Experts Discuss How to Achieve ‘Education for All’

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24 March 2014

Education is the “pillar” for all other development goals though each country is different and quantity does not guarantee quality. These were among the lessons shared by experts at the High-level discussion on education in the post-2015 development agenda hosted last month in Brussels by the Norwegian Mission to the European Union.

The discussion coincided with the release of the 2013-2014 Education for All Global Monitoring Report from UNESCO, which found:

  • Despite improvements, far too many children lack early childhood care and education especially in low income countries
  • Universal primary education is likely to be missed by a wide margin as there were still 57 million children out of school in 2011
  • Many adolescents lack foundation skills gained through lower secondary education; the gross enrolment ratio was, for example, as low as 49% in sub-Saharan Africa  
  • Although the adult literacy rate has increased, in absolute terms the number of illiterate adults fell by just 1% between 2000 and 2011.
  • Gender disparities remain in many countries: in 2011, there were still 17 countries with fewer than 90 girls for every 100 boys in primary school, and
  • Poor quality of education means 250 million of children of primary school age are not learning the basics.

As experts debate the new development agenda, Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Sport, Media and Youth, said education represented “unfinished business”, and not only in low-income countries. In Europe, 75 million people have very poor literacy skills.

“We must move beyond the present framework of quantitative goals to address quality and inequalities as well,” Mrs Vassiliou said.



Dr Qian Tang, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, reflected on the lessons learned from the previous Millennium Development Goals.

He said the narrow focus on access to primary education had led to a neglect of other crucial areas of education. We need to take a holistic approach to education; he said and championed the notion of lifelong learning. Beyond the need for providing a full cycle of school education to all children and youth, higher education is equally important. Teachers, for example, who are crucial to ensure the quality of education, require tertiary education. 

Dr Tang said a target on education financing was also being considered for the post 2015 education agenda, because “without adequate financing you cannot really reach any goals.” 

“UNESCO in the last 20 years has been pushing. It had been recommended that each country should [give] at least 4 to 6 per cent of GDP or 15 to 20 per cent of a government budget to education… Member States have said ‘yes, that’s a good idea’, but now that should be put as a target for Member States to reach.” 



The current Millennium Development Goals have been seen as parallel to the Education for All goals set at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000. Dr Tang said the international consensus was that for the new development agenda, there should be one overarching goal for education with a set of global targets and indicators.

Speaking in the days after the event, Marja Karjalainen, deputy head of the Education, Health, Research, Culture unit at EuropeAid, agreed.

“I do agree with Dr Tang about needing to join forces to achieve one framework for education post-2015, a framework which is universal in nature; which identifies global goals that can be operationalised at country level; which enables countries to adapt these goals based on national priorities; and which goes beyond mere quantitative goals to address quality and equity in education.”

Ms Karjalainen added:

“It’s not always about fancy solutions, it’s about everyday things like having separate latrines for girls and boys.” 

In Somalia, for example, it is considered taboo for girls to be seen going into or out of a bathroom and a lack of private facilities can discourage girls from attending school at all.

In a spirited discussion, more than one questioner spoke of the need to “decolonise” education, arguing that “quality” was often difficult to define and should go beyond western-style rote learning to consider wisdom, beauty and one’s relationship with nature.

Bjorn Haugstad, state secretary at the Norwegian ministry of education and research, disputed the idea that teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills was disrespectful to indigenous cultures.

He also appealed for a wider understanding of the importance of learning, saying it was enriching not only in a financial sense.

“If you only use education as a vehicle for making people more productive then you lose a very important part of education… as a vehicle for [improving quality of life].”

Margarete Sachs-Israel, programme specialist at UNESCO and focal point for the post-2015 education agenda, said that every country had its own educational requirements and priorities and this should be taken into consideration for the development of the future education agenda.

She said that ‘soft’ skills such as creative thinking, team work and problem solving should be encouraged, though these were sometimes difficult to measure through learning outcomes.

“While we promote clear fundamental principles for education for all countries based on a rights-based approach, we are really far from promoting one single model of education,” she said.

Ms Karjalainen spoke of the need to create “self-sustaining local learning eco-systems”. For example, “learning from one’s parents and grandparents about recent past and local customs; learning from local professionals of their trade; and opportunities for promoting reading, writers and for story telling locally.”

Christian Addai-Poku from the National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT) in Ghana described what is in his opinion the problem of low-cost private schools in urban areas being supported by international donors at the expense of poorer state schools. 

“We think that it is further going to aggravate the problems that we have in access to education and trying to create equity,” Addai-Poku said. He argued education was wrongly being portrayed as a commodity, “instead of it being a human rights issue.”



Ms Sachs-Israel also highlighted the “shocking” equity gap identified in the Global Monitoring Report. It found that in sub-Saharan Africa the richest boys would have universal access to primary education by 2021 while this would take the poorest girls until 2086.

The importance of closing the gap was illustrated by the fact that, as Ms Karjalainen pointed out, “in sub-Saharan Africa the lives of about 1.8 million children could be saved if girls had some secondary education”.

As such, Ms Sachs-Israel argued equity should be at the heart of the post-2015 education agenda.

Ms Karjalainen said:

“The EU’s policies emphasise that priority in development cooperation needs to be given to the poorest countries and those most off-track to reach the education goals. Within countries, there are also big disparities and inequality of opportunity to obtain education. We all, donors and partner countries alike, must work together to ensure that also the most vulnerable and disadvantaged can realise their right to education.”

A lunchtime conference on the "Education for All Global Monitoring Report" will be held on the 25th of April at the EuropeAid’s Infopoint, in collaboration with EuropeAid Unit B4 and UNESCO. More detailed information will be posted in the Public Group on Education and Development once it’s available.

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Marja Karjalainen, Margarete Sachs-Israel and Aislinn McCauley with support from the Coordination Team.

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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