Goal 4 “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all

sdg-4Universal and gender-equal access to primary education are arguably among the biggest success stories of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) programme (for a good illustration of progress, see Table 2, page 3 of this OECD post-2015 report), with most countries achieving, or close to achieving, both of these goals.

The successors to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have now been universally adopted, and with science and maths education high on the policy agenda here at the Royal Society (see our Vision for science and mathematics education), we have followed the education goal closely.

The SDGs aim to integrate sustainability much more closely into the education agenda, unsurprising given UNESCO’s United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. This resulted in the Shaping the Future we Want report, launched last year at the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Japan.

A good scientific education and understanding is vital to address many of the sustainability issues that UNESCO have highlighted, including climate change, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity, and sustainable consumption. Making informed judgements, using evidence and following an ethical approach to new technologies and developments will be vital skills for navigating a rapidly changing world, as Vision states.

Notably, secondary and adult education are addressed explicitly in the new SDGs. This recognises that it is not just young people who can benefit from the transformative power of education. Ensuring that whole population has basic skills, such as reading, writing, mathematics and science can bring great benefits, not only from a moral and social perspective, but also economic wellbeing in terms of improvements in productivity, growth and innovation. These benefits are likely to be particularly pronounced in the least developed nations, as highlighted in a recent OECD report.

  • 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

Secondary education was present from a gender equality perspective in the MDGs, but was somewhat forgotten due to the large focus on universal primary education (with reports from some countries suggesting that resources may have been diverted from secondary education to achieve the universal primary goal). Now, there is an increasing realisation that high-quality secondary education is vital to provide the competencies required for sustainable development worldwide.

  • 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.

Equality still features very strongly within the education sustainable development agenda. Building upon equal access for men and women to primary and secondary education, the new goals now relate to the whole education system, from primary through to higher education.

  • By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.

Participation barriers to science and maths exist at all levels in the UK, notable are the prominent gender disparities in physics, maths and computing. As an example just 4.5% of girls entered for A Level physics in 2013/14 compared to nearly 21% of boys.

But access to higher education for those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minority pupils are also high on the agenda. These are all issues that the Royal Society will be hoping to address through its Diversity Strategy over the coming years.

Also of particular interest was to see teachers so explicitly recognised:

  • 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

Our Vision report places teachers at the heart of education, and a meeting held here in January on the topic of teacher professional status and supply confirmed that these issues are indeed applicable internationally. From our discussions, some of the starkest shortages did appear to be in developing countries, as the goal suggests. Attracting top graduates to pursue a career in science and mathematics teaching is a long-standing problem in the UK and one which is not easily solved, see my previous blog posts here and here.

We hope over the next 15 years the SDGs will usefully rally the international community to address and assess these teacher supply and retention issues. Establishing a strong and lasting supply of STEM teachers would lead not only to a greater supply of much needed STEM skilled graduates, but also greater scientific and mathematical confidence in the general population. As Vision states, a good basic STEM education is vital for citizens to make informed, evidence based decisions and fully participate in an increasingly technological world. In addition, these skills will be absolutely vital for fulfilling UN ambitions of a sustainable future – and we hope that the important role of teachers in delivering the Sustainable Development agenda is fully recognised.

This blog post is the first in a series on the Sustainable Development Goals to be published over the coming weeks. Our next post will look at resilient cities, covering aspects of our Resilience to Extreme Weather policy report.