The fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is not only about quality education – it is about inclusion and equity. These two words define the very substance of the quality education that we want for the world’s children. None of the targets related to SDG 4 can be achieved without them (indeed, target 4.5 is dedicated entirely to equity). So they have to be reflected in the indicators.
Why? Consider two fictional countries, called ‘Zao’ and ‘Zito’. An imaginary SDG monitoring report shows that in Zao, the bigger of the two countries, 80% of primary students have achieved a minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics. But in Zito, it’s only 60%. Based on these numbers, where would you rather your children went to school: Zao or Zito?
These numbers, however, say little about how well children in either country are really doing in terms of educational development. The picture changes dramatically when we look more closely. In Zao, half of all children of primary-school age do not go to school at all, while in Zito, all children are in the classroom. This means that actually only 40% of Zao’s primary-school-age population has a minimum proficiency in reading and math, given that 50% are not in school. But even this extra indicator still doesn’t tell the full story. Of the kids in school, 70% of those with at least a minimum proficiency are boys. This reflects the challenges young girls face in Zao in starting school and in staying there. In Zito, boys and girls have the same opportunities. So the task of improving education in these two countries will be very different.
Don’t stigmatize “low performers”
Indicators that assess equity and inclusiveness are essential because quality education is not provided randomly or evenly across an entire population. It is well known that, particularly in developing countries, the best education is rarely reserved for the poor, for girls, or for children in rural areas. The SDG monitoring cannot fail to expose this situation given that there is a risk of hiding or even deepening the exclusion and inequities through the stigmatization of the “low performer” countries. As we have seen, Zao and Zito have very difficult challenges to overcome and assigning them a world ranking based on a single number will not help them to achieve the targets. We must provide meaningful, comparable and relevant information that reveals the full picture of education systems, for governments and civil society.
This imaginary example, for one indicator for one target, illustrates the complexity of monitoring the SDGs and how difficult a task it is to assess equity and inclusiveness. It is not, however, impossible. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has been doing fundamental work that aims to ensure that all the indicators can be disaggregated at by gender, socio-economic status and location (urban or rural) at the very least. There is also equally important work underway to devise a thematic set of indicators that offer more contextual information for the global indicators and provide new measurements for conceptual areas of the targets that are not already covered by the global indicators.
Brazil is one of the Member States involved in the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG) on SDG 4 – Education 2030 Indicators, which is chaired by the UIS and UNESCO’s Education Sector. The TCG aims to build political consensus on the implementation of thematic monitoring and we are reviewing each indicator, evaluating just how complex it can be to produce the data, and exploring ways forward.
Schools must guarantee that students are learning at the right age
Assessing inequity and exclusion through contextual indicators is necessary and worthwhile, as experience in Brazil, demonstrates. For example, one of the main indices created by the Brazilian government to monitor the quality of education at school level combines information on students’ performances in standardized tests and the grade repetition rate in primary and secondary education. The rationale is that the school has to guarantee not only that the students are learning, but also that they are learning at the right age. This is particularly important as grade repetition and being much older than your classmates are major causes of student drop out.
The dissemination of this index has been enriched by the recent addition of contextual indicators. These capture other aspects linked to learning outcomes, such as students’ socio-economic status, teachers’ qualifications and schools’ management complexity. School learning outcomes and promotion rates (i.e. students not repeating grades) are now published together with indicators that provide the necessary context to assess quality in Brazilian schools. These indicators not only avoid unfair comparisons but also offer a broader perspective about quality in education for public debate. They will help policy makers to formulate a more effective response to challenges in our educational system. This work is essential, given the extremely high level of inequality and exclusion in Brazilian society.
In the broader context, and thanks to diligent work by TCG Member States and civil society, we now have consensus about the need to combat social inequalities and exclusion, enshrined in the ambitious and progressive educational agenda for 2030. Given that all stakeholders now aim to guarantee the best education for all, we must ensure that the most vulnerable groups are not hidden behind the statistics. One of the first steps to go beyond the numbers is to uncover the profound disparities that countries will have to address, and this step is underway. In the next few weeks we’ll get our first look at the available data on equity as UIS launches a new e-Atlas on this issue, alongside a report that outlines how to produce more data on the inclusion and equity that are so crucial for quality education.