Image credit: Stephen Douglas/UNESCO
The information on baseline values and submitted national benchmark values for 2025 and 2030 now features in the Global Education Observatory, a new gateway to education-related data. The UIS and GEM Report will release a baseline report analysing the results of this process in early 2022. The report will highlight where countries, regions and the world aim to be. A process will be outlined to help countries develop education targets where these are still missing but also, where relevant, to reflect the potential effect of COVID-19 in national benchmarks as data emerge.
Figure 4: Over 20 months, schools were at least partially closed for 55% of days
Proportion of days by school opening status, February 2020 to October 2021
Target 4.1: Primary and secondary education
By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
Before the pandemic, 260 million children, adolescents and youth of primary and secondary school age were out of school. The figure had barely budged in a decade. A collaborative project between the GEM Report and the UIS is under way to integrate and triangulate administrative and household survey sources, fill gaps in the administrative data and develop a coherent time series. This builds on GEM Report team work consolidating multiple sources to estimate the completion rate. A new website (www.education-estimates.org) makes the approach more accessible to countries. Primary completion rates are approaching or exceeding 90% in all regions except sub-Saharan Africa, where only two of three children complete primary school, although the rate increases from 65% to 76% if those who reached the last grade very late are included (Figure 5). In sub-Saharan Africa, 23% of children in primary school and 31% of adolescents in lower secondary school are significantly over-age, explaining why the region has the largest gap between timely and ultimate completion rates.
In the global set of countries covered by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the average annual growth between 2015 and 2019 in the share of students achieving a minimum level of proficiency was 0.3 percentage points at grade 4 and 0.5 percentage points at grade 8. Countries exceeding these averages included Chile, where the share grew from 41% in 2003 to 57% in 2011 and 70% in 2019, i.e. its growth rate was at least three times faster than the average. Elsewhere, as in Jordan and Romania, there was little or no growth. Reaching the last 10% is proving challenging even in well-resourced settings. In the United States, 86% of students achieved the TIMSS low international benchmark in 1995 and 87% in 2019; in New Zealand, the share declined steadily from 89% in 1995 to 82% in 2019.
Figure 5: The indicator of timely school completion significantly underestimates how many children ultimately end up completing
school, especially in sub-Saharan Africa
Completion rate and ultimate completion, by region, 2000–20
Target 4.2: Early Childhood
By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
Data on the Early Childhood Development Index for children aged 36 to 59 months suggest that the wealth gap mostly stagnated or increased. The methodology of this indicator, which captures the percentage of young children developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being, has been thoroughly updated. Learning starts in the home. In 2012–19, 62% of children were engaged in four activities or more by an adult in the household in a set of low- and middle-income countries. The percentage was below 20% in the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Togo. An important constraint on stimulating activities such as joint reading is the availability of books. On average, less than a quarter of children under 5 had at least three books at home. In half the countries, less than 1 in 10 children do; in 8 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, less than 1% of children do.
The right to education begins at birth. By the time a child reaches age 3, 90% of its brain is developed. Participation of children under 3 in early childhood care and education programmes tends to be limited, though it reaches over 20% for ages 0 to 1 and over 60% for age 2 in several middle- and high-income countries. Even in high-income countries, access to early childhood care and education is still very much dependent on socioeconomic background. In France and Ireland, the difference in participation between 0- to 2-year-olds in poor and rich households is over 50 percentage points. Globally, 75% of children were enrolled in pre-primary education one year before the official primary entry age in the school year ending in 2020. The adjusted net enrolment rate was half as high in low-income countries (45%) as in high-income countries (91%).
Target 4.3: Technical, vocational, tertiary and adult education
By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.
TVET remains underfunded and often neglected in many countries, although countries including Armenia, Brazil, Burundi, Costa Rica, Indonesia and Uruguay have substantially increased participation rates in the past 15 years. Vocational secondary schooling may not seem an attractive option if, unlike a general secondary certificate, no vocational diploma offers the option of continuing directly into tertiary education, as is the case in a quarter of countries. By contrast, in 30% of countries, all vocational secondary school graduates enjoy direct access to tertiary education.
The global gross enrolment ratio for tertiary education was 39%, continuing a steady average growth of around one percentage point per year since 2000. These administrative data do not always agree with survey data on attendance (Figure 6). Enrolment may underestimate attendance if many students attend institutions that are not counted in official statistics because they lack recognition or accreditation. Conversely, enrolment may overestimate attendance if many students are enrolled only nominally, especially where tuition is free and student status comes with subsidized services. Also, administrative data relate to the nominal age range of five years immediately following the upper secondary graduation age, but tertiary study at higher ages is common, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Figure 6: Tertiary education enrolment data may overestimate or underestimate actual attendance
Gross attendance and enrolment ratios in tertiary education, 2015–19
Affordability of tertiary education from a lifetime perspective does not make such education affordable upfront. The economic case for cost sharing in tertiary education depends crucially on prospective entrants not facing credit constraints. Student loans of various kinds are available in over 70 countries and have grown into a trillion-dollar market. In many countries, the proportion of borrowers’ income required to repay student loans is excessive, especially for the least well-off graduates. More promising policy reform has involved a shift from the widely used time-based repayment loans to income-contingent loans.
In most high-income countries, employers are the single biggest provider of adult education and training, highlighting the need for policies to target individuals who are outside the labour market. Even for those employed, time to pursue training may be as important as sponsorship, showing the need for public interventions in the form of education leave programmes. Longitudinal data from six high-income countries show that adult education is a recurrent pursuit for a significant minority, especially among the more educated.
Target 4.4: Skills for work
By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.
In only 10 of 91 countries with data do a majority of adults report having at least 5 of 9 information and communication technology (ICT) skills monitored for global comparisons. In around half the countries, a majority of adults possess no skills. In most lowand middle-income countries, few young people who have not completed at least lower secondary school possess any ICT skills. In Iraq, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Sierra Leone, even the most educated average fewer than two of the nine skills. Access to devices and the internet represents another obstacle: Even among 20- to 24-year-olds, 98% of women and 90% of men in Chad reported never having used the internet; the respective shares were 61% and 63% in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and 36% and 31% in Tunisia.
Computational thinking is being included in national curricula. Finland has made algorithmic thinking and programming compulsory from grade 1 as a cross-curricular activity. In a review of eight high-income countries in 2018, students who more frequently used ICT in school for school-related tasks did not necessarily score higher than their peers, and students with programming experience were not necessarily able to transfer those skills to non-programming environments.
Financial literacy is a key skill for livelihoods in modern economies and for adult life in general, but not everyone has the opportunity to learn crucial financial concepts at school. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment included an optional financial literacy module, which was used by 20 participating education systems. Girls were less likely to report classroom activities related to financial topics in all participating countries, despite the fact that financial education is usually included in mathematics, generally a non-elective subject.
Target 4.5: Equity
By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.
Gender inequality remains a key concern, even if understanding the wide range of challenges at different levels and in different places requires nuance. Upper secondary education is the level where adolescent girls may be severely disadvantaged (e.g. in Benin, Chad and Niger) but also likely to enjoy an advantage and a rapid shift in conditions to their favour. This is happening in a wide range of countries, including those that are furthest from achieving SDG 4 relative to their peers in specific regions, including Cambodia, Congo, the Gambia, Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda.
Wealth, which tends to be measured at the household level, does not always capture child-specific deprivation. In several countries, 10% of deprived children are in the richest households and over 30% of children in the poorest households are not deprived. The level of child deprivation can be an additional strong predictor of education outcomes.
Significant numbers of children attend schools controlled by non-state armed groups. These groups have numerous reasons for choosing to provide education, whether through direct control, selective interventions, e.g. in the curriculum, or letting existing providers continue to operate. Education is among the most prized services demanded by civilians; failure to provide it can lead to resentment.
There are challenges of linguistic diversity in education. In western and central African countries, including Chad, the Gambia and Togo, no more than 5% of children aged 7 to 14 speak the language of instruction at home. An approach combining language of instruction policy with linguistic data sources, school-age population estimates and enrolment rates suggested that 37% of children in lowand middle-income countries learned in a language other than their home language: 27% spoke a minority written language and 10% a less common language, each with relatively few speakers.
Globally, among adults aged 15 and above, 83% of women and 90% of men are literate, in terms of a binary categorization of literacy – a seven percentage point gap. More than one in four young women are illiterate in sub-Saharan Africa, where female youth literacy rates have increased by less than one percentage point per year. Globally, a decline since 1999 in the number of illiterate women in Eastern and South-eastern Asia has been almost offset by an increase in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, an assumption that all secondary school leavers are literate means the true literacy level has previously been overestimated. Almost half of lower secondary completers in 18 countries with recent survey data do not reach the basic level of literacy, defined as being able to read a simple sentence (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Even secondary school leavers cannot be assumed to have acquired literacy
Literacy rate in the age group 20 to 24, by school attainment, selected countries, 2015–19
The converse fact, that no schooling does not equal illiteracy, highlights the importance of acquiring literacy outside school. In relation to the estimated illiterate population, adult enrolment in non-formal ISCED 1 programmes is 1% or less in Bolivia, Honduras, Mozambique, Qatar and Suriname, 2% in Bahrain and Peru, 3% in Colombia and Thailand, 4% in Saudi Arabia and 8% in the Dominican Republic.
Data even on simple numeracy skills are scarce. A proxy measure of basic numeracy can be calculated as the percentage stating their age correctly, which reflects the ability to work with simple, low integers. While most, even the poorest, cross this threshold, this measure is suitable for examining historical numeracy trends.
An analysis of household survey and population census data allows the numeracy of cohorts born between the 1960s and 2010s to be traced for 42 sub-Saharan African countries. Improvements over time have been marginal and not sustained among the poorest. The overall increase in numeracy in Africa was due almost entirely to rising school participation.
Target 4.7: Sustainable development and global citizenship
By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
Target 4.7 goes further than the rest of the SDG 4 agenda in addressing what learners need to learn in order to reach the transformational ambitions of SDG 4. The share of schools providing life skills–based HIV and sexuality education is frequently low, especially at the primary level, e.g. 2.5% of primary schools in Burkina Faso and 6% in Niger. Yet the revised UN International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education recommends covering puberty and menstruation before learners experience them, i.e. for ages 9 to 12. UNESCO’s Sexuality Education Review and Assessment Tool underlies a recent global progress report on comprehensive sexuality education. Among 24 countries, only 3 are assessed as providing ‘advanced’ curriculum content on sexual and reproductive health for ages 9 to 12, and 5 countries as having ‘established’ content.
The 2016 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study in 23 upper-middle- and high-income countries found that the percentage of students with adequate understanding of issues related to global citizenship ranged from around 40% in the Dominican Republic, Latvia and the Netherlands to almost 70% in Croatia, the Republic of Korea and Sweden. The 2019 TIMSS showed that only about 30% of students reached proficiency in knowledge of environmental science. Climate change education aims to help populations understand, address, mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change. A new series of country profiles on climate change communication and education by the GEM Report and the Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education project offers a comparative perspective. The first set of 20 country profiles covers all regions and country income groups. A second set of up to 50 profiles is scheduled to be published in 2022. Initial analysis suggests that a climate change focus was found in only 40% of national education laws and 45% of education sector plans or strategies.
Target 4.a: Education faciltities and learning environments
Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.
Learning of good quality cannot take place if the environment is unsuitable, much less if it threatens children’s well-being. The Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental political commitment to protect students, teachers, schools and universities from attack during times of armed conflict, has now been endorsed by 112 states. Evidence continues to grow that corporal punishment not only violates children’s rights, but also affects education outcomes. Corporal punishment is now fully banned in schools in 156 countries.
School may be the only place some children have access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. In Liberia, few households have hygiene facilities that meet the basic international standard, but 69% of schools do. However, small schools, primarily located in remote and rural areas, can reasonably be assumed to be less likely to meet infrastructure quality criteria than large schools. In Cabo Verde, 22% of primary schools in 2018 lacked basic handwashing facilities. However, the smallest 22% of primary schools accounted for only 2% of primary enrolment. Globally, the share of children attending schools without basic facilities is therefore likely significantly lower than the share of schools.
Beyond physical facilities, other aspects such as the organization of school calendars – from distribution of instruction days across weeks and years to the duration and organization of the school day itself – can have important consequences for the quality and equity of education systems. Many countries’ school calendar structure is due more to the influence of colonial history than seasons, and is poorly aligned with local agricultural cycles. School starting times also matter. In addition to allowing more sleep time, a later start appears to align better with adolescents’ circadian rhythm, with peak alertness in the late morning and evening.
Target 4.b: Scholarships
By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.
Overall aid to support student mobility rose by 30% between 2015 and 2019, from US$3.4 billion to US$4.4 billion. Total scholarship aid to low-income countries doubled from 2015 to 2019, exceeding growth in tertiary enrolment. But taking both low- and middle-income countries into account, the number of outbound students far outpaced the growth in scholarship aid. On average, per international student, less scholarship aid was available in 2019 than in 2006. The uneven data available suggest that the aim of substantial expansion in scholarships by 2020 has not been met. But donors are now likely to provide scholarships to more developing countries than in 2015, and, more importantly, recipient countries are less likely to be dependent on one or two key donors.
The concept of ‘brain drain’, where scholarship alumni do not return to their countries of origin, is being replaced by a more sophisticated understanding of ‘brain circulation’. Recent estimates suggest that return migration represents a significant part of migration flows to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and that these migrants are more educated, on average. Some countries recognize that even highly skilled nationals who will not return in the foreseeable future represent an asset if properly engaged. Out of 22 Latin American and Caribbean countries analysed for the Emigrant Policies Index, 8 maintain formal brain circulation networks. An earlier mapping of diaspora policies of 35 countries, representing all world regions, income levels and government types, found that two thirds maintained scientific networks of some kind and half imposed return obligations for students sent abroad on scholarships.
Target 4.c: Teachers
By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States.
Reported data indicate that sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the lowest percentage of teachers meeting national standards: 57% in pre-primary (vs 83% in Latin America and the Caribbean), 67% in primary (vs 85% in Northern Africa and Western Asia) and 61% in secondary education (vs 78% in Central and Southern Asia). Hence, pupil/trained teacher ratios are almost twice as high in sub-Saharan Africa as the global average, despite a little improvement since 2015.
Even qualified teachers may not be qualified for the specific subject they teach. Teaching out of field is prevalent in much of the world. In at least 40 education systems that participated in the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey, over 10% of lower secondary school science teachers had received no formal education or training in the subject. The same is true for mathematics teachers. In Georgia and Saudi Arabia, less than 60% of science and mathematics teachers have received training in their subjects as part of their formal education. Out-of-field teaching raises equity concerns, as not everyone is equally likely to be, or to be taught by, an out-of-field teacher, which is often more common in rural locations and schools serving less advantaged students.
New UIS estimates on the teacher salary indicator, which examines how teachers fare relative to other professions requiring a comparable level of qualification, show that average differences between teachers at different education levels within the same country are generally small compared with differences between countries. In high-income countries, where most evidence comes from, teachers tend to be paid less well than comparable professionals in other sectors (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Relative to other professionals, teachers tend to earn relatively lower salaries in high-income but higher salaries in some
low- and middle-income countries
Average teacher salary relative to other professions requiring a comparable level of qualification, latest year available in 2015–19
The teacher salary indicator is meant to be a proxy for teacher motivation. But many more factors affect motivation, as recent analysis of considerable teacher absenteeism in eight eastern and southern African countries suggests. Even according to teacher self-reports, the share of those absent from school at least once a week ranges from less than 10% in Kenya and Rwanda to nearly 30% in South Sudan. Teachers say they are absent on health (62%) and family grounds (35%), followed by weather (especially heavy rain and excessive heat), official business and transport issues.
According to the latest data, which do not reflect the impact of the pandemic, public education spending was equal to 4.4% of GDP and 14.1% of total public spending. Of the 151 countries with data for 2014–19, 48 countries, or 32%, missed both benchmarks of 4% of GDP and 15% of government spending on education set out in the Education 2030 Framework for Action. Public education spending was 3.5% of GDP and 16% of government spending in low-income countries, compared with 4.7% of GDP and 12% of government spending in high-income countries.
Aid to education remained stagnant at US$15.3 billion in 2019. Aid to basic education decreased by US$504 million relative to 2018, while aid to secondary education increased by US$203 million, reaching 20% of total aid, up from 12% in 2005. However, the balance is likely to return to basic education’s favour when the 2020 aid data are released, as the Global Partnership for Education disbursed a record US$1 billion in 2020 to address the consequences of COVID-19.
Among 75 countries for which data were available for 2014–19, household expenditure was 0.1% of GDP in high-income countries, 0.8% in middle-income countries and 3.3% in low-income countries.
Monitoring education in the Sustainable Development Goals: UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi
Covid 19: UNICEF/Alessandro Potter
Primary and secondary education: Save the Children
Early Childhood: UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi
Technical, vocational, tertiary and adult education: UNICEF/Olivie Asseli
Skills for work: UNHCR/Mohammad Hawari
Equity: Caroline Trutmann Marconi/Save the Children
Literacy and numeracy: Ari Vitikainen/UNESCO
Sustainable development and global citizenship: Roxanne Paraiso/UNESCO
Education facilities and learning environments: UNICEF/Roger LeMoyne
Scholarships: Mohammad Hawari/UNHCR
Teachers: UNICEF/Srishti Bhardwaj
Finance: UNICEF/Miléquêm Diarassouba