The UK and the SDGs – where I think we are

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The small (and under-resourced) group that has been working with UKSSD on a 'where are we' summary of how the UK is doing in relation to SDG 4 has finished  its work, the result will appear at some point as part of a whole 17-Goal document.  In the end, it was a stimulating exercise and one which proved to be merely very difficult, as opposed to what I'd feared: impossible.  That said, I fear that it's quite likely to completely satisfy no one – it's too short for that; and then there's the inherent issue of dealing with 4 (largely) separate educational jurisdictions, as well as trying to be apolitical ...

Anyway, here's my own (obviously personal and partial) take on where the UK is in terms of SDG4 which I contributed to the mix.  Not all of this survived the consultative process of course ...

Target 4.1 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes

The vast majority of school-age children in the UK are offered an appropriate quality education. For example, in 2016/17, 90% of all primary and 79% of secondary schools in England were judged by Ofsted [2] to be good or outstanding whilst noting the existence of a small but persistent group of underperforming schools including some where this has lasted for 10 years. There continues to be stark discrepancies in funding across schools resulting in an increase in secondary schools in England with financial difficulties which are affecting the curriculum.

Interntional comparative judgements on the effectiveness of this are mixed. The UK was ranked 15/70 overall in the OECD 2015 PISA tests of science, maths and reading [3]. This was comfortably ahead of France, the USA and Sweden, but uncomfortably behind Singapore, Estonia and Viet Nam. Unlike most of those above it in the tables, the UK has a relatively high level of low achievers across all three areas with boys are over-represented. According to Ofsted, in England there are hundreds of schools that have never achieved adequate inspection reports.

By contrast, in the 2016 PIRLS [4] assessment of reading comprehension (in the 4th grade) Northern Ireland came 6th and England 8th (out of 41 countries), and in 2016 tests of Science achievement (TIMMs), Northern Ireland was (6th) at Grade 4, and England was 10th at both Grade 8 and Grade 4.

There are marked differences in PISA scores across the UK. The scores from England and Northern Ireland are the highest, and are consistent over recent years. Scotland’s PISA scores are falling, and Wales is now below the OECD country average for all three areas. Critical commentators in Wales and Scotland [5] blame recent curriculum reforms for this poor performance, though policy-makers say this is to overly simplify matters. There are no PIRLs or TIMMs scores for Wales and Scotland as their governments spare children the stress of taking the tests.

Concerns about standards have recently been raised in relation to the number of home-schooled children in England, and to the number of unregistered schools [6] that are beyond oversight and regulation. Many of these are faith-based [7].


Target 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

In its 2016/17 annual report,[8] Ofsted said that the quality of early years providers in England had continued to improve, with 94% of providers judged to be good or outstanding. There are consistently good participation rates (around 95% from 2012 – 2017) across the UK, resulting from a determined policy push.[9]

Whilst at a national level in England, 66% of children achieved a good level of pre-primary development, there is a long tail of unreadiness. It is here where the outcomes of a continuing very variable family support structure become very clear. In England, the DfE [10] has an ambition to improving the quality of early years provision. It has a focus on early language and literacy, including ensuring more disadvantaged children are able to experience a language-rich early environment (closing the word gap), and ensuring that all eligible parents can access 30 hours of free childcare per week.

In England, there is a lack of policy coherence between early year’s goals and the national curriculum. In a 2017 report [11] on the reception curriculum in England, Ofsted say that there should be more emphasis on reading, writing and basic numbers in the reception year of education, including more priority given to listening to imaginative and stimulating stories, with maths given more priority in early year’s teaching. It also questioned about whether the early years foundation stage (EYFS) is appropriately designed to prepare pupils for Year 1, noting that in schools that achieved consistently high outcomes for children, It was clear that they were, by necessity, departing from the EYFS because the standards in the guidance were too low, particularly for mathematics.


Target 4.3 By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university

ONS says that the percentage of youth (16 to 24) in education, employment, or training across the UK was 88% in 2016 (much as it was in 2004 before falling to a low of 84% in 2011).[12]

The closure of some forms of FE provision, notably in agriculture and the land-based industries in many counties of England, is a major issue. Some of these focused on the rural environment and conservation along with much of the provision relevant to the UK’s future food security. The development of training focused on the so called green economy is still in its infancy and received scant coverage in the recent Sainsbury Report on technical education reform [13], in spite of projections by various agencies that provision is growing (> 5% per year) faster than many other sectors of the economy. Growing numbers of mergers in the further education sector has made access for many students difficult which could impede progress on the implementation of the recommendations of the follow-up to the Sainsbury report.

UCAS note clear differences between the four parts of the UK in terms of the application rates of young people from educationally disadvantaged areas. [14] These were, Northern Ireland 24%, England 23%, Wales 20% and Scotland 17%. UCAS also notes differences in application rates between young men and women remain high. In England, women are 36% more likely than men to apply to university, and in Northern Ireland, they are 40% more likely to apply. In Wales, women are 48% more likely to apply, and in Scotland, women are 56% more likely to apply. The social group that is least likely to participate in HE (and to do relatively poorly at school) remains white working class boys.[15]


Target 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

The further education and skills sector provides education, training and apprenticeships for a significant number of learners aged 16 and above – around 3.3 million in England, for example where a significant change has been the introduction of yet another revision to certification.

This sector is, like Cinderella, still waiting for it’s prince to pitch up with a decent offer. It has long suffered from a status problem which has not been resolved by the many attempts (the latest is T levels) to reform its multifarious and ineffable qualification sets. Despite this, the 2016 ONS labour force data [16] provided information on those whose educational attainment matched their employment needs. In late 2015, this was 69%, a figure that has been roughly consistent since 2002. By contrast, 15% were under-educated, and 16% over-educated. For the 16 to 24 age-range these proportions were 77 / 10 / 13, and for 56 to 64 year-olds, they were 67 / 21 / 11. There are marked differences when country of birth is taken into account with those born abroad being more likely to be over-qualified for the jobs they do. Gender differences are small.

This kind of match/mismatch analysis only presents a snapshot of the current economy, rather than the emerging one where information skills of all kinds will be vital. Here, internet use is one indication of preparedness. According to the ONS (2017) [17] 89% of adults (90% men; 88% women) now use the internet, with 73% of adults doing this ‘on the go’ with 93% buying online in the last 12 months. 99% of those between 16 and 34 years were internet users in contrast with 41% of adults aged 75 years and over (although internet use among women over 75 has trebled since 2011). 22% of disabled adults had never used the internet in 2017, down 25% in 2016. Northern Ireland remains the region with the lowest recent use (84%).

Computing education in many of the UK schools is going through a marked shift with the introduction of new computer science courses and exams. For example, in England’s national curriculum, [18] pupils at key stage 4 should be taught to:

  • develop their capability, creativity and knowledge in computer science, digital media and information technology
  • develop and apply their analytic, problem-solving, design, and computational thinking skills
  • understand how changes in technology affect safety, including new ways to protect their online privacy and identity, and how to report a range of concerns

Figures from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations regulator (Ofqual) show a modest rise in students taking the new, more rigorous, computer science GCSE.[19] A concern is that too few girls are taking these courses. In 2016 they made up just 20% of entrants whist the figure for the previous ICT had been around 40%.

To improve the quality and range of apprenticeships available to learners across England, the government introduced a number of reforms including an apprenticeship levy, employer-led standards and degree-level apprenticeships. More than 460,000 apprentices started on an apprenticeship in 2016/17 but initial inspection reports (on 189 providers with 187,000 apprentices) were not encouraging: 6% were found to be outstanding; 43% good; 40% requiring improvement; and 11% inadequate.[20] The OECD has a 2017 comment on the skills gap in the UK.[21]


Target 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

There remain many intractable (unresolved) disparity issues of gender, disabilities and ethnicity in terms of participation, access and outcomes in schools and further and higher education in the UK. Statistics from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) [22] address many of the issues for HE and the recent follow up to Sainsbury report [23] focuses on some of the issues in FE.

Females outnumber males in most of the HE provision in the UK, apart from engineering and technology; the largest gender disparity is for non-science disciplines where females significantly outnumber males. Part-time numbers of HE students are currently falling, some of which is attributed to raised tuition fees on the participation of mature students.

In FE there is still a relatively low take up overall of relevant vocational courses which has led the Sainsbury report to stress the underlying skills deficit in the UK along with the long known but critical lack of employer engagement and investment in technical education and training.

In 2016, the Social Market Foundation [24] published a report on educational inequalities in England and Wales. This showed educational performance varying significantly across different ethnic minority groups, and that white students have fallen from over-performers to under-performers on average over the three decades. It also found clear regional variation at GCSE even when factors such as ethnicity and income are controlled for, and the performance gap between the richest and the poorest has remained persistently large (for those gaining 5 A* to C grades including English and Maths) since the mid-1980s.

It is difficult to say who, if anyone, might be seen as ‘indigenous’ in the UK these days. It's not Irish (and other) Travellers although they are distinct groups and concerns remain about the education offers taken up by these (and similar) communities despite efforts by central and local government.


Target 4.6 By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

A 2013 OECD survey of Adult Skills [25] reported that England was the only country in the developed world where those aged 55 to 65 performed better than 16 to 24 year olds at functional levels of literacy and numeracy. Unsurprisingly, it found that adults in full-time employment were most likely to have the highest levels. In a 2016 update,[26] England came 11th and Northern Ireland 16th (out of 35) for ‘proficiency in literacy’. Commenting on the 2013 data, OECD wrote: “These results confirm the vicious cycle in which low-skilled workers risk being trapped in a situation in which they rarely benefit from adult learning and their skills remain weak or deteriorate over time, making it even harder for these individuals to participate in learning activities. The key priority challenge is to help low-skilled adults break this cycle.”

There are issues, here, of what it means to be literate in a world that is shifting to digital ‘on-the-go’ media, and it could be, digitally-speaking, that young people are already more literate than their elders. Another aspect of being (beyond functionally) literate is what Doris Zahner wrote about in a recent HEFCE [27] blog in relation to the sort of generic and transferable skills that are at the heart of the PIRLS tests:[28]

“These are skills that are applicable to an array of academic domains and can be measured and improved upon through teaching and learning. These are also the same skills that employers have deemed as very important for success in the workplace and in today’s knowledge economy.  ...

Yes, content and domain knowledge is essential.  Yes, soft skills such as teamwork and grit are important.  Yes, overall satisfaction and happiness are significant. But today, generic skills are increasingly valued because people need more than just domain knowledge in order to effectively contribute to society. The next generation of students must improve their ability to access, structure, analyse, and communicate information.  It is essential for the future."

As noted above, [i] schools in England and Northern Ireland are effective at helping students develop such skills; and [ii] there are no data on students in Scotland or wales.


Target 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

Progress has been made on this target across the four jurisdictions of the UK, and across most educational sectors. For example, in Scotland, [29] all learners have an entitlement to learning for sustainability, and every practitioner, school and education leader has to demonstrate learning for sustainability in their practice within a whole school approach to learning for sustainability. In Wales, there is an aim to prepare students in schools to be 21st century global citizens, and an approach to teaching and learning with seven themes that link closely to multiple SDGs at each key stage of education: (i) wealth and poverty, (ii) identity and culture; (iii) choices and decisions; (iv) climate change; (v) consumption and waste; (vi) natural environment and (vii) health. A 2017 St George’s House report [30] provides more detail of SDG-related activity across the UK.

Despite this, it is still a patchy picture with a range of good practice in some schools (especially through DfID’s global learning programme) and FE and HE. However, in the absence of any national evaluation it is difficult to establish the scale and range of progress: and impossible to assess its impact on behaviour, attitudes and competences in civil society and in the work place.

The global learning programme is the most pertinent, pan-UK initiative in respect of the SDGs, but it (and its promoters) have a bias towards the social justice elements of sustainability at the expense of natural capital issues (eg climate change and biodiversity/species loss). It is a problem, therefore, that no other programme across the UK addresses these issues systematically.

Evidence shows that pupils in schools that take environment and sustainability seriously are generally more motivated. Whether this is attributable to the more environmentally and socially relevant educational experience which they receive, or it is because the institution itself is motivated to provide such an experience, remains a moot point.

The National Union of Students has in recent years been a key agent for change and development of the FE and HE curriculum through a wide range of strategic and operational interventions (see case study), and has longitudinal data on student attitudes to sustainability which show that students expect universities and colleges to take action on sustainability. There is overwhelming agreement (87% of responses; n=6357) that sustainable development is something that universities and colleges should actively incorporate and promote.


Targets 4a b and c Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all

Good progress has been made in all three MOIs, but ensuring a continuing supply of well-motivated, appropriately-remunerated and professionally well-qualified teachers remains a fundamental condition for guaranteeing a quality education at all levels. There is good evidence that teachers are open to change but at the same time, they need space and time to take more initiative in a positive and less overtly ideological policy environment.













[11] Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools’, Ofsted, November 2017;


[13]: the case for change. Department for Education. July 2016









[22] Who’s Studying in HE? HESA 2016-17

[23] Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education,2016








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