Post-2015 Education and Development: Contestation, Contradictions, and Consensus

Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda  Compare 43:6 December 2013
Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda
Compare 43:6 December 2013

Yusuf Sayed

Centre for International Education, School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex, UK

Terra Sprague

Research Centre for International and Comparative Studies, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, UK


This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in Compare [the exclusive right to publish residing with Taylor & Francis, copyright BAICE]. The final version can be found here.

As the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches, there are a growing number of processes, preparations and debates on what a post-2015 agenda and framework will look like. The UNDG (as chaired by UNDP) is leading the planning of efforts to catalyse a “global conversation” on post-2015 through a series of some 100 national consultations and 11 global thematic consultations. The aim of these consultations has been to bring together a broad range of stakeholders to review progress on the MDGs and to discuss the options for a new framework.  The overall global thematic consultation on education is co-led by UNICEF and UNESCO, with support from the Government of Canada, the Government of Germany and the Government of the Republic of Senegal. The education consultations focus on the progress to date as well as the possible scope and shape of education within the post-2015 agenda.

The purpose of this special edition of the Compare Forum is to contribute to this debate in relation to ideas about how progress towards greater education quality and equity can be achieved, including how and what goals and targets need to be defined and owned and how governments can be made accountable for them.

We begin the edition with a summary of the post-2015 education consultations co-led by UNESCO and UNICEF. The contribution looks back to the 2001 Millennium Development Goals, informed by the Millennium Declaration. It notes that while the MDGs have shown that a set of clear and measurable targets can be an important driver of change; the formulation of the post-2015 agenda must follow a different approach. As such, the United Nations system has facilitated an unprecedented series of consultations with hundreds of thousands of people the world over to seek their views on a new development agenda to build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This global conversation responds to a growing call for active participation in shaping the ‘world we want’. Taking place well before governments sit down to negotiate and finalize such a new agenda, the consultations underway provide evidence and perspectives to governments on the challenges people face in improving their lives and those of their families and communities. The Thematic Consultation on Education followed just this process – gathering the voices of over 22,000 people with a view to developing a holistic vision of how best to reflect education, training and learning in the post-2015 agenda. What emerged was a consensus that whatever type of structure the post-2015 agenda may take, education must claim an explicit goal, focusing on ‘Equitable, Quality Education and Lifelong Learning for All’ if we are to overcome current and future political, economic, technological, health and environmental challenges and to ensure the possibility of a path of sustainable development.

As we move closer to the goal of Education for All, we need to be increasingly aware of what kind of education is appropriate for everybody, and especially what restrictions the wrong type of education imposes. Turner cautions against an overly prescriptive education agenda post-2015 as the ‘the skill sets required will be as varied and various as the niches for which those individuals are destined’. He also reminds us that education is ‘an individual passion’ and we should avoid a form of specification in which the Post-2015 world ‘freezes schools as they are today’.

While a  some of the contributions to this special issue of the Compare Forum approach the Post-2015 debates from such a holistic perspective concerning the purpose of education today and for the future, others raise more specific, sector-focussed issues.  These contributions ask questions and pose suggestions as to the position of certain aspects of education, for example secondary and higher education, or the role of teachers, within a post-2015 landscape. In doing so, they not only call attention to the role of these respective sectors, but they highlight the contribution of education to the wider post-2015 development framework.  In this regard, the issues of education and emergencies are significant, and here we find two contributions on this multifaceted theme.

Smith, in his piece on education and peace building, overviews key initiatives to develop frameworks that address conflict through sustainable peace building using a social justice perspective.  In doing so, he helpfully unpacks some of the concepts from the education in conflict cannon, providing a helpful entry point for all readers to engage with these debates.  Smith further draws attention to some of the key documents and components of the overall post-2015 development process, including the High Level Panel report and the role that goals, targets and indicators continue to play within the development framework.  He describes the UN Secretary-General’s Education First initiative, and describes how this, ‘places a particular emphasis on securing the right to education for children in conflict-affected countries.’ Smith concludes that social justice must play a role in the post-2015 development framework, suggesting that ‘the inclusion of post-2015 targets related to equity and social cohesion may go some way in recognising the crucial role of education and social development in sustainable peace building.’

Paulson and Shields also write from the education in conflict and emergencies perspective.  Drawing upon quantitative research, they point to a recent challenge to the traditional advocacy position of the education in emergencies community.  This challenge argues that education appears to improve during warfare.  In order to respond to this, and its implications for post-2015 planning, Paulson and Shields describe the debate around the quantitative evidence and describe initial findings from their research, which uses a multilevel modelling technique to investigate the impact of conflict on education.  They conclude that a richer understandings of fragility is necessary, and that this presents an opportunity ‘to build a stronger and more theoretically informed evidence base.’ Key to this, they suggest, is a need to consider state capacity and political will, and that if addressed, this can serve to benefit the causes of many education related post-2015 priorities.

Another perspective on the debates around post-2015 education is the vital role played by teachers.  Shrestha highlights that, while the High Level Panel report gives a nod to the quantity of teachers needed, there is a lack of targets or indicators regarding their training or effectiveness.  Drawing upon focus group discussions undertaken by Voluntary Service Overseas across five countries, he points to the ‘insufficiency of well-trained teachers and lack of good governance and accountability as major issues in current Education For All (EFA) goals.’  A lack of focus upon teachers, an inequitable distribution of well-trained teachers and a learning crisis in teachers’ content knowledge are three key areas to which this contribution draws attention.  An argument for the need of indicators in this area is made and suggestions are put forth, with the conclusion that ‘Without indicators such as these, it seems hard to effectively hold governments and donors accountable to their commitment to invest in well-trained and effective teachers.’

Unterhalter, Peppin Vaughan and Smail also discuss the quality of teaching and learning by way of entering the post-2015 debate from the secondary and higher education perspective.  Teaching and learning quality are but one of five distinct topics that are picked up in this piece, which summarises recent British Council funded research about secondary and higher education approaches which have appeared within the post-2015 discussion. Unlike others who argue fervently for particular goals, targets and indicators, Unterhalter and colleagues are ‘not convinced that a target or an indicator on secondary and higher education is an appropriate direction to take with regard to the post-2015 agenda.’ ­­In addressing these points, the authors also comment on the processes associated with the MDGs, reminding us that, ‘the most prominent agencies working on education and development, have related but distinct positions’. They further outline some of the disconnections within the MDGs and argue that without attention to these, ‘development assistance will flow in fragmented directions’.

Inclusion has been a significant theme running across the whole of the post-2015 deliberations, beyond the education sector debates, so it is not surprising to find it embedded within the education discussions themselves.  This theme, similar to the focus upon sustainable development, as addressed by Barrett, perhaps represents ways in which education debates can break out of the traditional silos typically seen in development approaches, providing a cross-cutting and multidisciplinary way forward.  Tungaraza, Sutherland and Stack argue that the failure to meet MDG 2 by 2015 comes down to difficulties in the implementation of processes, and that diversity of learners, teachers and societies has not been sufficiently taken into account.  They address three specific questions: is there a shared understanding of what Universal Education is; are current Universal Education systems equitable for all, and; are current Universal Education systems inclusive? They argue that the work undertaken in education to date has, ‘served some well and further marginalised others’ and urge us as educationalists to take some time to consider the type of global education that might be suitable for the world’s children, keeping in mind the need to build sustainable futures.

Barrett’s paper argues that the focus on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the post-2015 development framework represents the ‘the most significant re-balancing of the notion of international development since the concept of international development emerged in the 1950s’ though it has not been strongly enough articulated in the education debate. Whilst welcoming the post-2015 emphasis on quality, equity and a more expanded vision of education, she bemoans the failure to look at higher education and a narrowing of the learning agenda to achievable targets in literacy, numeracy and skills which may end up privileging the ‘international industry in measuring learning outcomes, which has its centres of expertise mainly in wealthy countries in the global North increasing the imperative to argue for local determination and debate of learning goals. She argues that the SDG agenda call for an expanded vision of learning as well as paying attention to the ‘negative face of education’. She concludes that developing a vision and practice of ‘good quality relevant education in the twenty-first century will require greater engagement with other development goals, including the environmental dimension of sustainable development’.

Bunwaree’s article summarises the Commonwealth Ministers’ Recommendations for the Post-2015 Development Framework for Education focusing on three concerns of access, quality, and equity. The Commonwealth Ministers propose a combined framework with three principal goals supplemented by six detailed subordinate goals that would build on EFA. They argue that this ‘single, two-tier structure would allow the alignment of headline and specific goals and reduce the implementation and monitoring burden on countries’. The three principal goals include a commitment to every child completing a full cycle of a minimum of 9 years basic education, a commitment to strategically expanding post-basic education, and a commitment to the elimination of differences in educational outcomes among learners. The six subordinate Goals relate to ECCE, an ‘expanded vision of access’, successful learning achievement, ‘strategic expansion’ of post-basic and tertiary level education,  eradication of illiteracy and innumeracy, education opportunities for young people and adults who have not successfully completed 9 years basic education, the elimination of disparities in participation in education and  adequate infrastructure for learning. In addition, several Crosscutting themes of Education in Emergencies, Migration, Gender and Education for Sustainable Development are noted as important for the post-2015-education agenda.

Alhawsawi and Hanna summarise the deliberations of a post graduate student forum on the post-2015 education and development agenda. This Forum was hosted under the auspices of the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE) and the United Kingdom Forum for International Education and Training (UKFIET), and hosted by the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex. They identify several core priorities for the post-2015 agenda. These include the need for home language instruction, a commitment to a comprehensive approach to gender equality, a focus on rural development as well as on societies affected by crisis or conflict. The forum also identified the need for a comprehensive focus on sustainable development and the need for a post-2015 development framework infused with sustainability-related values. The issue of a more comprehensive approach to quality was a key debate at the workshop. Quality, it is argued, is more than a narrow and instrumental view on literacy and numeracy outcomes and that ‘most of the indicators for the attainment of the goals were limited, particularly in the case of the MDGs as they excluded quality and learning, which did not exist initially, as in the case of the EFA goals’. Integrating and harmonising two overlapping sets of goals found in MDGs and EFA was identified as a key priority. It was noted that many countries signed the UN Declaration and endorsed EFA goals though they are not legally binding; rather, they are non-enforceable moral commitments. As such, questions were raised about the meanings and status of such frameworks for accelerating education progress for all. Lastly the day conference noted  the need to consider power issues in deliberation noting that ‘the majority of the organisations involved in the evaluating and re-engineering of education and development goals were organisations from the North that focussed mainly on the South; there is a lack of input from the South in discussions relating to the post-2015 agenda’. In summary, the students Forum was an important milestone for BAICE students to articulate their views about the post-2015 educational agenda pointing to the need for ‘relevant, quality and equitable education, gender parity in education, the need for clarity and contextual considerations in defining indicators, the need to address North-South power differentials, and the development of a more streamlined single set of goals’.

Soudien’s article discusses issues of ownership of the post-2015 education and development agenda raised by Al-Hawsawi and Hanna arguing that while debates about the post-2015 agenda are intense, experts and agencies in the Global North dominate it. Thus notwithstanding the positives in relation to a focus on quality the process remains ‘one of global power, typically those of the north versus the south, and of national level politics, those between contending role- players in the confines of a country, are to be mediated through the hierarchical bureaucracy of the United Nations and its structures such as UNESCO and UNICEF. Soudien also criticises some of the substantive content aspects of the post-2015 education agenda in relation to the notion of education quality. He argues that while a focus on quality is welcome, good education cannot be reduced to narrow instrumental skills and should not take a definition of quality which does mistakenly conflate benchmarking exercises with quality. He argues that quality is more than benchmarking on standardised testing and must include other areas of learning and skills which are not easily amenable to measures such as comprehensive sexuality education and education for sustainable development. He argues that a post-2015 agenda should acknowledge, critically engage, and voice the concern of the marginalised. To this end he endorses ‘citizen assemblies everywhere around the globe’ which are deliberative spaces where information and expertise about the futures available so that choices are made in a ‘clear-eyed way’.

The special edition ends by considering the formidable issues involved in measuring progress – any goals which are agreed in education have to be translated into meaningful and monitorable indicators. Motivan’s article addresses this dimension arguing that measurement should be based on a clearly articulated policy framework based on a robust understanding of key concepts. He notes specific indicators which have already begun to be suggested by different bodies and interest groups cautioning that they need to be clearly defined to avoid the problems faced in the measurement of the current MDGs, without detracting attention from developing clearly articulated priorities and commitments. Two principles are proposed as a way forward. The first is that there is a need for a ‘broader and more holistic framework which encompasses the education sector and its constituencies’. The second is that any measures developed should be driven by national governments’ needs and be focused on what countries consider  important and valuable.  He also draws attention to the need to ensure that there is a ‘common language’ for ‘conceptualizing and measuring the equity of countries’ education systems’ with respect to learning.  Motivans reports on the work of the Learning Metrics Taskforce which has begun to develop indicators for measuring learning identifying six broad areas of measurement. He concludes by cautioning against a quick-fix approach to measuring goals noting that ultimately long-term institutional change is needed, developing national government capacity to measure progress in education, particularly for the poor and marginalised.

This special issue attempts to represent a range of voices and perspectives about the post-2015 education agenda. However, we do note the absence of attention to pre-primary and early childhood care and education.  This sector has certainly been afforded priority in the High Level Panel report (UN 2013a) and will undoubtedly continue to feature in forthcoming debates about the post-2015 education landscape given its importance in reducing as well as entrenching inequities in society.  The contributions also reflect a shift away from a narrow focus on primary education as is the case with the current global education agenda reflecting the fact that much global and measurable success has been gained in the primary sector.

The contributions to this issue raise many issues and tensions which will need to be addressed in the coming period as more concrete targets and indicators are detailed. This includes which level of education should be a priority (ECCE, secondary, vocational, tertiary); at what level (global, regional and national) should these targets and indicators be set; which body should be responsible for monitoring progress; what should be the status of any post-2015 development framework; should the post-2015 agenda be arranged as a series of sectoral priorities as the current MDG framework is or should it be more thematic in nature? It is these and other issues which is the heart of the specification of a post-2015 education and development agenda.

The post-215 education consultations has resulted in numerous discussion forums and the publication of many proposals for the future world. This includes the High Level Panel’ Report entitled ‘A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development,,  and the Interim Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals ( Most recently, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) released the report of its consultations called the A million Voices: the World We Want: A sustainable future with Dignity for All. This reports on the perspectives ‘ from over 1 million people around the globe’. It is based on almost a yearlong consultation including 88 national consultations, 11 thematic dialogues (of which the education consultation is one  summarised in this edition), and through the MY World global survey. As member states consult on the shape and content of a successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) beyond 2015, it is these voices that need to be heard to ensure that the post-2015 world is designed by people and government from the Global South and whose voice is paramount in achieving a just and equitable future. The post-2015 development agenda is too important be simply the voice of development experts and special interest groups and organisation, mainly from the North. Ultimately, it is governments in the Global South who will have to deliver and be held accountable for delivering on any post-2015 education and development framework.

It is evident across all the contributions in this special edition of the Compare Forum that education should feature strongly in the post-2015 development framework. This is not surprising given the voices included. Yet some fear that education may not remain core to the post-2015 development agenda. There has been criticism by some that the High Level Panel has perhaps not prioritised education strongly enough (Packer 2013). If this is indeed the case, then the education community, particularly those from the Global South do need to voice a louder position in all the reports and deliberations concerning the post-2015 discussions. The post-2015 education development cannot simply be a ‘Northern Tsunami and Southern Ripple’ (King and Palmer 2013)

There remains much to be done before the post-2015 development framework is complete and the coming months promise to be an interesting period as these continue to be shaped. In some ways, this special issue highlights the fact that as a field, we face some lack of clarity regarding the Post-2015 architecture including how exactly any MDG type Framework fits with an Education for All approach. None the less  there is a clear and strident call for a harmonised framework which places education at the heart of any development agenda in which  the eradication of  inequalities between  and within countries is core to any pro-poor development agenda. The elimination of poverty and the eradication of inequality should remain the driving force of any post-2015 education and development framework, and for this, the voices of the Global South need to be most heard in any future discussions.


King, K and Palmer, R (2013) Post-2015 Agendas: Northern Tsunami, Southern Ripple? The Case Of Education And Skills, Norrag Working Paper 4

Packer, S. (2013) The High Level Panel Report – The Place of Education. UKFIET Community of Practice. 21 August 2013. [accessed 5 September 2013]

United Nations. 2013a. A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development. The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. New York: United Nations.

United Nations. 2013b. My World. The United Nations Global Survey for a better world. Retrieved 14 August 2013 from:

 Acknowledgements and thanks

We would like to thank UNESCO and UNICEF for providing intellectual support for a Special Edition of the Compare Forum on the post 2015 education and development agenda. We would like to thank in particular Morgan Strecker and Jordan Naidoo (UNICEF) and Olav Seim (UNESCO) for their support and contribution of the summary of the education consultations that their two organisations co-led. Morgan Strecker in particular has been a tremendous source of support and inspiration responding to numerous queries and request for information, feedback and contributions in a speedy and efficient manner. She remains a constant source of encouragement for discussion about the post 2015 education consultations.