Looking back at the World Education Forum, which drew more than 1,500 people from 140 countries to Incheon in the Republic of Korea, it is easy to be cynical about what these global meetings can achieve. After all, we have had two other such gatherings in the past 25 years – in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990 and Dakar, Senegal in 2000 – yet millions of children are still out of school and many millions more are not learning.
But there were strong signals from those who gathered – including the president of Korea, Park Geun-hye, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, ministers of education and the heads of UN agencies – of a strong commitment to promoting the transformation of lives through education. Three years ago there was genuine concern that education was going to get forgotten in any post-2015 agenda that was being developed. But the energy of UN agencies, national governments, international donor agencies and NGOs has now resulted in education gaining its rightful place amongst the post-2015 sustainable development goals.
This commitment has resulted in an ambitious agenda to be achieved by 2030, as set out in the Incheon Declaration. The agenda is framed by the overarching goal of achieving “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”.
Given the world’s track record to date, some might argue it is too ambitious. How can we possibly achieve 12 years education of good quality for all children in the next 15 years that the declaration calls for if, despite all the efforts of the last 15 years, poor rural girls in some parts of the world still spend on average no more than three years in school and at least 250m primary-aged children are not learning the basics in reading and mathematics?
Progress for all
When we meet again in 15 years time, it is vital that we celebrate victory over illiteracy, as the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, the children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi stated. To achieve this, one sentence in the Incheon Declaration should drive global and national efforts in the coming years – namely that: “no target should be considered met unless met for all”. This will require a change of mindset to focusing resources and strategies on the most marginalised. As Anthony Lake, the executive director of UNICEF commented, estimates show that currently around 40% of public spending reaches the richest 10% of the population – this pattern needs to be reversed if these goals are to be realised.
Incheon must be the turning point when this change in mindset towards focusing on the most marginalised finally begins – or we are in danger of seeing a repetition of the trend over the past 15 years since Dakar in 2000: initial rapid progress at getting children into primary school which then stalled given the greater challenges of reaching those left behind.
In the coming years, it should be fairly straightforward to expand access into secondary education for the more advantaged children who are already on track to finish primary education. It will be far more difficult to ensure this progress is equally distributed among all groups in the population, regardless of wealth, gender, ethnicity, where a child lives and whether they have a disability. And once they are in school, it will continue to be a challenge to ensure these children receive the quality of education needed to support their learning. It is therefore vital to track progress of educational access and learning for the most disadvantaged groups to make sure 12 years of good quality of education by 2030 is truly met for all.
Researchers were amongst the least visible group at the forum. Yet as Jim Kim, the president of the World Bank, stressed in his opening remarks, to achieve success, the design of effective strategies to reach the most marginalised needs to be based on robust evidence.
No doubt academics and students will analyse the words and phrases in the Incheon declaration in years to come and identify its flaws. No doubt also the declaration could have been improved by sharpening the language to make it more accessible. Hence my suggestion of writing the Declaration in tweets to reach a 21st-century audience.
But more importantly than dissecting the language of the Declaration, there is a desperate need for researchers in education to provide rigorous evidence of use to policymakers for planning strategies that support the learning of the most marginalised. This will leave policymakers with no excuses. If they don’t step up to the mark, a strong evidence-base will provide information to hold them to account before it is too late.
The world’s education leaders have now made ambitious commitments to overcoming inequalities such that expanding education opportunities and raising learning outcomes will be achieved for everyone. It is now our collective responsibility to keep these promises. Only then can we hope to meet in 15 years time to celebrate victory over illiteracy.