The Education 2030 agenda was adopted in 2015 to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030 with a series of targets set out to realize this. Before COVID-19, the world was already off-track to meet the targets and because of the pandemic some of the gains already made in education were lost. Education was severely disrupted worldwide with the most vulnerable learners affected worst. However, the crisis also saw global partnerships strengthened or newly forged in order to rethink the way forward for education and realize the Education 2030 goals.

The United Nations (UN) ratified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to serve as benchmarks for every nation to ensure global prosperity, protection of the planet, and an eradication of poverty.

This Agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. We recognise that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan.

Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations

Goal 4 of the SDGs was a unique goal focused purely on education. This is the first time such a standalone education goal has been set and ratified.

Goal 4—Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning

For those who agree with the role that the UN plays, it is hard to disagree with any of the goals or much of the wording. The call for a Quality Education – not merely access to any education – is a grand step in ensuring that all children, and not just those from high-income countries, have a quality education.

But what do we mean by a quality education?

There are some who argue that the threshold of quality education is met by focusing only on literacy and numeracy, but the SDGs are a recognition that this definition is insufficient and outdated. Education is not simply a content delivery system; rather, it is a system designed to help all children reach their full potential and enter society as full and productive citizens. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set the SDG process in motion in 2012 by declaring that every child must be in school, and the quality of those schools must improve so that students are prepared to be productive citizens, ready to lead the future.

We must make sure that what comes out of the indicator roundtables taking place in 2016 defines and addresses the term Quality Education.

Too many times, we have seen the meaning of words be adjusted, stripped, diluted, or subjected to complete metamorphoses. Words and phrases like accountability and data driven have had their well-intentioned and appropriate meanings changed. Accountability is now code for teacher evaluations linked to student academic achievement, while data driven too often equates to test scores only.

The meaning of a Quality Education is one that is pedagogically and developmentally sound and educates the student in becoming an active and productive members of society. A Quality Education is not one that is measured purely by a test score or by how many words per minute a 5-year-old can read. To hark back to these simplified measurements is to do a disservice to both the student and the phrase Quality Education itself.

A quality education provides the outcomes needed for individuals, communities, and societies to prosper. It allows schools to align and integrate fully with their communities and access a range of services across sectors designed to support the educational development of their students.

A quality education is supported by three key pillars: ensuring access to quality teachers; providing use of quality learning tools and professional development; and the establishment of safe and supportive quality learning environments.

The SDGs reflect a global consensus in our young century that education is a human right and a public good that is critical to the health and future of the world. But ours is a world of severe challenges, with millions of students under fire, unsettled and unschooled due to conflict and governments globally failing to meet their funding commitments to education, especially with regard to their poorest citizens. Education advocates have a responsibility to promote policies that integrate schools, communities, and nations into a system that supports development of the whole child, ensuring that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

We must make sure that a Quality Education is just that – an education that serves each child pedagogically and developmentally. An education that is inclusive and is structured to realize the potential of each child regardless of location or economic status. Don’t let the words change their meaning—a quality education is needed for all.

The ways that education affects poverty — and can help to end it — are well documented.

But the ways education can help to end extreme poverty are only possible if education is approached in a meaningful way. 2012, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Education is about more than literacy and numeracy – it is also about citizenry. Education must fully assume its central role in helping people to forge more just, peaceful and tolerant societies.”

Here are some of the ways the UN further defines “quality” education, and some of the ways we’re working towards this goal at Concern.

Extreme poverty is generally defined as a lack of assets or a lack of return on those assets. One of these assets are skills, including technical and vocational skills. The more relevant these skills are in the 21st Century, the more likely they are to generate a return. This not only means understanding how relevant skills have changed against the digital revolution and automation, but also against climate change, shifting societal norms, and political realities.

Education is a fundamental human right. However, there are 263 million children and youth around the world who are kept out of the classroom. Many of them are excluded due to discrimination, including over 130 million girls excluded based on gender. Quality education means equality in education, at all levels, for all vulnerable populations.

According to UNESCO, if all adults acquired basic literacy and numeracy skills, an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. However, UNESCO also estimates that there are 781 million illiterate adults (over the age of 15) around the globe. Many of these adults have completed several years of education, but due to different barriers remain unable to read or count.

Many of these instances are due to language minorities in a region. For example, education in Niger (which consistently ranks last on the United Nations Development Programme’s Education Index) is often limited due to language barriers in the classroom. While the national language of Niger is French, in a region like Tahoua, most children grow up speaking Hausa. Concern brought its “Mother Tongue” program into one school in Tahoua, where almost all of the 787 participating students in grades 2 and 3 read no French or Hausa.

This method is in line with UNESCO’s recommendation for early teaching in the mother tongue. By beginning their education in their mother tongue and gradually transitioning to French, we saw illiteracy rates drop to 25-34% from 96-100% over four years. We’ve had similar success with this program in Haiti and Kenya.

Environment is crucial to fostering a quality education. This means building and upgrading schools that are child-friendly, disability- and gender-sensitive, and provide safe, nonviolent, and inclusive spaces for kids to learn — and to enjoy being kids. Unfortunately, both physical and psychological aggression and gender biases are still prevalent in far too many schools

One of the UN’s other main goals around education is to increase the population of qualified teachers, especially in the least developed countries and small island states, around the world. While many teachers receive training, it’s not always in line with the best education models, or it’s not tailored to teaching in fragile contexts.

For our education programming, we want to focus on educating the next generation, but we also care about educating the educators. Our work in Mother Tongue education means ensuring that teachers have bilingual training in both the national and mother tongues of their classrooms.

Concern’s work in primary education is grounded in the belief that all children have a right to learn. I believe that education is one of the best routes out of poverty and integrate it into both our development and emergency work to give extremely poor children more opportunities in life, and to support their overall well-being.