It's time to rewrite SDG4

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The UN says this about SDG4:

Education enables upward socioeconomic mobility and is a key to escaping poverty.  Over the past decade, major progress was made towards increasing access to education and school enrollment rates at all levels, particularly for girls.  Nevertheless, about 260 million children were still out of school in 2018 — nearly one fifth of the global population in that age group.  And more than half of all children and adolescents worldwide are not meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics.

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, a majority of countries announced the temporary closure of schools, impacting more than 91 per cent of students worldwide.  By April 2020, close to 1.6 billion children and youth were out of school. And nearly 369 million children who rely on school meals needed to look to other sources for daily nutrition.

Never before have so many children been out of school at the same time, disrupting learning and upending lives, especially the most vulnerable and marginalised.  The global pandemic has far-reaching consequences that may jeopardize hard won gains made in improving global education.


And these are the 7 targets associated with the Goal:

  • 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
  • 4.2 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary 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
When you read the above (or re-read it as I do) one thing strikes you forcibly:  targets 1 to 6 are about the world as it is, with only 4.7 being about our uncertain future.  Further, the preamble is all about targets 1 to 6.  Target 7 never gets a mention.  How odd.  Odd, that is, unless you understand UNESCO.
In its looking glass world a school system could be rated highly effective on targets 1 to 6 whilst ignoring all the associated existential issues we face.
But how can this be?  How can a "quality education" be scored highly if it ignores climate change and the environmental issues we face?  Just as problematic, it can be argued that target 4.7 is itself inadequate because it essentially ignores climate and biodiversity focusing preferentially on human rights, gender equality, peace, etc.
All this is due to the enduring contestation (and scrabble for resources) within UNESCO between the teams representing Education For All (the high status crew), and ESD (the supplicants at the gate).  UNESCO’s inability (or is that unwillingness?) to bring these groups together lies at the heart of the problem outlined above.
Time to rewrite SDG4 I’d say.  But this is the last thing that's likely to happen within UNESCO.  Someone else should do it.

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