On September 5th the APPG on Global Education held a parliamentary roundtable event to mark the halfway point of the Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on SDG4 on education. Parliamentarians were invited to reflect on the progress that has been made on Sustainable Development Goal 4 since its drafting in 2015 and to learn about the actions needed to meet the goal by its target date of 2030.

The APPG was joined at the roundtable by Yusuf Sayed, Professor of Education: Social Justice and Inclusion at the University of Cambridge, Judith Herbertson, FCDO Head of Girls’ Education Department, and Hugo Gorst-Williams, FCDO Head of Geopolitics Unit.

The session was opened by APPG Co-Chair Lord German (Liberal Democrat), who introduced the context of the meeting occurring in advance of the Sustainable Development Goal Summit at the United Nations General Assembly September 18-19, 2023. Lord German outlined how the goals are seen to be largely off track, and that the summit would call for global cooperation on the acceleration of action across the goals, including on education.

Professor Yusuf Sayed was the first speaker on the panel, beginning the discussion with an overview of the Sustainable Development Goals’ intention and drafting to set the scene for the moment we are now in. He outlined the seismic shift in thinking that the goals represented, in that now the development agenda centres equity and protection of the climate for the first time. He noted that more than any previous agenda, the SDGs have gained traction across the Global North and Global South, and emphasised that the goals are for all states – not just low-income countries – representing a broader conception of development.

Moving on to the specifics of Sustainable Development Goal 4, Professor Sayed reviewed how the goal is the most holistic and comprehensive global goal on education that has ever been created. This means the goal is incredibly broad, and there are critiques that the goal is weakened by having targets that are unmeasurable or unattainable. However, Professor Sayed also noted that this has allowed for the language of the goal to reflect the complex and broad nature of education and incorporate the priorities of a range of stakeholders. The caveat to this is that many of the SDG 4 indicators, which are used to measure progress on the goal, do not adequately capture what is at the heart of the goal and its targets, meaning that certain aspects of education have been overstated and given outsized emphasis in global actions.

Much of what is measurable in SDG4 is off track to be met by 2030. Some of the challenges in this include Covid-19, which had a deep impact on learning, and financing, as aid for education has decreased in recent years and financing gap to reach the benchmarks stands at nearly $100 billion annually. However, Professor Sayed clarified that what is measurable is not sufficient for understanding the progress on the goal, as there is little attention to aspects that are not captured in indicators such as the content, ends and practices for learning, student participation, and rights protections. Professor Sayed argued that there needs to be a shift in thinking for the goals that come beyond 2030, including improvement of indicators, a systems approach rather than an individual attainment approach, a more robust assessment model for the process of goals development, and incorporation of learnings on what has blocked education progress with the SDGs.

Next on the panel was Judith Herbertson, Head of the Girls Education Department at the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. Judith offered an overview of the programmes and approaches the UK Government is taking to advance SDG4 and spoke on how the FCDOs strategy aligns with the global goals.

Judith reemphasised the reversal of gains on girls’ learning caused by COVID-19, and argued that to be serious about leaving no one behind the UK must prioritise the most vulnerable and hardest to reach, including girls, children with disabilities, and others who may be deliberately or inadvertently left out of state provision of education. She highlighted that basic literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional skills act as the building blocks for children to access all other forms of learning and that a focus on these areas is intended to open up possibilities for students, not drive down priorities on learning outside of foundational skills.

She also warned that education is always at risk of being seen as a priority that can be deprioritised, since it is not a war, pandemic, or economic crisis. The deprioritisation of education can undermine the future of countries and their ability to deliver on conflict reduction, improved stability and peace, and ability to tackle climate change. Education needs political prioritisation of long-term, predictable financing which can provide generations of children the 12 years of quality education that the UK champions.

Current contributions and programmes through which the FCDO says it is advancing SDG4 are:

  • Contributions to the Global Partnership for Education, which distributes funds for building education systems, and Education Cannot Wait, which supports children’s education during crises.
  • Bilateral education programmes in 19 countries
  • SCALE (Scaling Access and Learning in Education) – a new programme currently under development which aims to transform the effectiveness of education spending in low-and lower middle-income countries starting with 10 pilots using evidence of ‘what works’
  • ASEAN – a programme supporting 100,000 women and girls with access to education and skills training in SE Asian countries that qualify for ODA spending
  • Data for Foundational Learning – supporting the UN and national governments to build data sets they need to track progress and make evidence-based policy decisions
  • The development of the International Finance Facility for Education – an innovative financing mechanism working through multilateral development banks to deliver a seven-fold return on donor investments, which claims to unlock an initial $1 billion in finance to improve education and skills in lower-middle-income countries.

At the SDG Summit, the FCDO plans to advance its aforementioned priorities, convene partners to review progress on foundational learning, and co-lead a discussion on violence in and around schools. Judith noted that if no additional measures are taken, only 2 in 6 countries will meet SDG4 by 2030, with 300 million students not having the basic literacy and numeracy skill they need to open doors to higher education.

Finally, Hugo Gorst-Williams, FCDO Head of Geopolitics, spoke to the APPG on how the UK negotiated the SDGs and what is needed as we look ahead to what comes after 2030.

Hugo offered history on the UK’s prominent role in shaping the SDGs framework, pushing for the language of ‘leaving no one behind’, the goal on Peace and Governance, and how the education and health goals were reimagined from their MDG predecessors to focus on equity and fairness. A major point that Hugo emphasised was the importance of indicators in the goals, which were not developed with the same broad, democratically rigorous process as the goals and targets. He said that now is the time to begin thinking about what comes next, especially considering lessons learnt on designing metrics for better accountability to ensure that the spirit of the goals and targets are not lost in what is measured (indicators).

While the SDGs have been met with complications and are off track to be met, Hugo made the case that they have still been incredibly valuable, evidenced by the fact that we are talking about momentum, politics and financing for the goals today. Were the SDGs not in place these conversations would not be happening. He also noted that we should not focus solely on the goals, but the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well, which is a powerful piece of global work.

Following the interventions, parliamentarians in attendance were able to discuss with the speakers how they could support the advancement of SDG4 as UK Parliamentarians and asked questions about specific aspects of SDG4 and the UK’s priority areas.

The APPG would like to sincerely thank Professor Sayed, Judith Herbertson, and Hugo Gorst-Williams for joining us to discuss this important topic in advance of the upcoming major global moment at UNGA on the SDGs.