Why the Sustainable Development Goal on Education matters for everyone

By Michael Ward
Senior Policy Analyst, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

Photo credit: PublicDomainArchive/Pixabay

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015, are a universal call for action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity for all. The fourth SDG (SDG 4) aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. SDG 4 encompasses ten targets, which together represent the most comprehensive and ambitious agenda for global education ever formulated.

The OECD works closely with UNESCO, the lead UN agency for SDG 4, and plays a key role in the implementation of the SDG agenda through monitoring and assessing measures of learning outcomes and skills. We take a closer look at SDG 4 in the latest edition of our Education Indicators in Focus brief, and explain why they matter for OECD countries.

Two facets of SDG 4 distinguish it from the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on education, which were in place from 2000 to 2015. First, it is truly global. The SDGs establish a universal agenda that does not differentiate between rich and poor countries. All countries are challenged to meet the SDGs and, so far, none can claim success. As our brief shows, even the richest countries still have some way to go to achieve SDG 4. Second, and even more important, SDG 4 puts the quality of education and learning outcomes front and centre. Access, participation and enrolment – the main points of focus under the MDG agenda – are still important; but the SDGs treat access to and participation in education as only a first step, rather than an end goal.

What matters for people and economies – and for the achievement of the SDG agenda – are the skills that children and young people acquire in education. The competence, skills and character qualities developed through schooling – even more than qualifications and credentials – make people successful and resilient in their professional and private lives; and they determine their individual well-being and the prosperity of their societies.

As we describe in our brief, SDG 4 defines learning as a lifelong process that begins with early childhood development, care and pre-primary education. These early years are an important opportunity to give every child a chance to learn, regardless of their social and economic background. Social and economic background remains one of the most significant predictors of a child’s educational outcomes, according to OECD data. These inequalities are apparent from a young age and often grow wider over a lifetime. Increasing access to quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is one of the most effective and efficient ways to improve the educational outcomes of children from poorer families. Investments in ECEC also improve employment and earning prospects, health outcomes, and other dimensions of well-being.


SDG 4 also reaffirms the importance of equity in education, as we detail in our brief. Social inequalities exist in education systems across all countries, whereby children from disadvantaged backgrounds systematically under-perform compared to their advantaged peers. Students’ performance in reading and mathematics is relatively weakly associated to their gender, as the above chart makes clear; but it remains strongly determined by their school’s location and their socio-economic status. There is a strong urban-rural divide in many countries – and especially in low- to middle-income ones – where by the age of 15, children in urban areas are often at least one year ahead of their rural peers in terms of learning achievement.

OECD countries have a key role to play in supporting this ambitious agenda – not just in terms of achieving the targets themselves, but also by helping to develop the methodologies and approaches necessary to measure progress. This is particularly important in areas such as quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education and knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, where data and methodology are still lacking.

The experience of the past two decades has confirmed that data – especially learning assessment and household data – is an essential component to achieving SDG 4. The availability of up-to-date, quality education data is vital for supporting evidence-based policy dialogue and decision-making, particularly in contexts where budgets are limited. The OECD is working closely with its institutional partners in the SDG 4 architecture (UNESCO and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, most notably) to make the investment case for more high-quality data to ensure complete geographical coverage of the global SDG 4 indicators, especially those related to learning and equity.

Through its work to support the SDG agenda, the OECD reaffirms its commitment to reducing social inequality in education to ensure that all children and young people have the same opportunities – regardless of their background or where they live.


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