Education and the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets unanimously adopted at the United Nations General Assembly Summit in September 2015. The goals will come into force in January 2016 and will drive international development work for the next fifteen years.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and adoption of the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs), seeks to incorporate and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental). The new agenda represents a fundamental shift in development thinking by recognising the underlying and dynamic interlinkages between the three dimensions, and by driving universal and integrated development across all countries. The SDGs look to address the root causes of poverty, and how different drivers of change influence and relate to one another to achieve transformation for sustainable development.

Within the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), education related to two standalone goals, narrow in scope, addressing gender equality and participation in primary education. Conversely, education is a cornerstone of the post-2015 agenda, as a goal in itself, as well as a catalyst for broader change. The new global agenda recognises critical role of education for sustainable development, and the interlinkages between education and transformative change.

SDG iconsMillennium Development Goal progress in education in the Commonwealth

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were the world’s time-bound (deadline 2015) and quantifiable targets for addressing extreme poverty across different dimensions – income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter and exclusion – while promoting gender equality, education and environmental sustainability. Commonwealth member states have made significant progress in achieving goals 2 and 3 which related to education.

MDG2: Achieve universal primary education

  • With the exception of the Pacific, pre-primary enrolment expanded across every region in the Commonwealth. The largest growth in pre-primary enrolment was in Sub-Saharan Africa where the average rose from 23% to 41% between 2000 and 2015.
  • The number of primary-aged children out of school has fallen in Commonwealth countries from approximately 43.5 million in 2000 to an estimated 17.2 million in 2015.
  • By the end of 2015, 15 out of the 53 Commonwealth countries will have universal enrolment in primary schooling. The figures reported for India indicated an increase in enrolment from just over 85% to 100%. Near universal access to education was also achieved in Malaysia.
  • The number of children out of school in Sub-Saharan African Commonwealth countries is estimated to have dropped from 16.8 million in 2000 to 11.8 million in 2015.

MDG3: Promote gender equality and empower women

  • Overall there was considerable progress towards equal access at primary level. At the lower secondary level, a striking number of countries had enrolments that favoured girls.

Key education-related MDG challenges

  • There are still approximately 17.2 million primary-aged children out of school in the Commonwealth.
  • Despite some progress, there are still 16.4 million youths out of school in the Commonwealth.
  • There are approximately 596 million illiterate adults in the Commonwealth.
  • Gender discrimination towards girls has improved, but there is still approximately 3% more boys than girls enrolled in primary schools across Commonwealth countries.
  • Disparities in primary school participation reflect lower female participation — approximately 3% average difference across the Commonwealth. Large discrepancies in gender parity exist across the Commonwealth, with national averages as low as 0.85 girls per 1 boy in primary, 0.69 girls per 1 boy in lower secondary, and 0.62 girls per 1 boy in upper secondary.
  • Gender disparity is wider at a secondary level, with national averages across the Commonwealth ranging between 0.62 girls per 1 boy to 1.38 girls per 1 boy, with the under-representation of boys in certain countries and regions — within the Caribbean and Pacific, boys face disparities in terms of completion and graduation rates.
  • The radicalization of young people and the underachievement of boys are emerging as challenges.
    School attendance has been affected in areas of conflict and during the recent Ebola outbreak.

Taking forward the SDGs

The SDGs seek to learn from and address the gaps, disparities and challenges that remain from the MDGs. The narrow focus of the MDGs has been replaced by an integrated and all-encompassing agenda, which emphasises poverty eradication, inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, equality and a people-centred agenda within 17 goals and 169 associated targets. Education plays an important role across all SDGs, driving progress towards sustainable development.

Education & sdgs

Source: Global Partnership for Education

Whilst education outcomes cut across the SDGs, SDG4 specifically addresses education – ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all – and encompasses 10 targets:

  • 4.1 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes
  • 4.2 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education
  • 4.3 By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university
  • 4.4 By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship
  • 4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations
  • 4.6 By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy
  • 4.7 By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development
  • 4.a Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all
  • 4.b By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrollment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries
  • 4.c By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States

Further Resources for Information

The Sustainable Development Goals:
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:
SDG Video:

Sustainable Development Cover Page

Education for Sustainable Development in Small Island Developing States, 28 October 2013, by Matthew Hiebert

Role of the Commonwealth Secretariat in supporting the SDGs for Education

Whilst education-related drivers and outcomes cut across the SDGs, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Health and Education Unit (HEU) is specifically targeting policy strengthening to enable Commonwealth countries to take forward Goal 4. The HEU focuses on building on good practices and scaling up action, through country capacity building and provision/dissemination of publications and resources, and through global advocacy and partnerships.