What’s being overlooked in the post-2015 Agenda for education?

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

Crain Soudien

Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
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.
IntroductionThe volume and intensity of the discussion and debate around the post-2015 millennium development goals, as many scholars and commentators around the world are saying (MDGs), is intense (see, inter alia, Sumner and Lawo 2013; Vernon 2013; Burnett and Felsman 2012; Morton, 2013; Institute for Development Studies 2013; Beyond2015 2013; and Wisor n.d.). Critically, as Vernon (2013, para 5) comments, the discussion has generally been very good: “… I feel the discussions about post-2015 goals are taking place in many ways as we suggested… the kinds of goals the world needs has become increasingly noisy, messy, and rich – as it should be.” He says that ‘the usual suspects’ – the development experts are still too much in evidence, but there is at least “a healthy debate going on, expressing diverse views…. It’s good that the process for discussing the next set of goals is so much more open and participatory than before” (ibid). There is need for acknowledgement of important positives in this debate. Key positives which reflect a sensitivity to critiques of the original MDGs include an acknowledgement that the MDG agenda is incomplete, ‘unfinished’ is a term which is used to describe the “(h)undred of millions of people (who) still have no access to even basic education” (Beyond2015 2013, 2); that “low… and middle income countries … (should) play ( ) a much more substantial role (Burnett and Felsman 2012, 20) in the formulation of the goals; that poverty has become more complex as it has taken different forms, and not least of all because the world’s major agencies have reclassified many low income countries as now being middle-income countries (see Sumner and Lawo 2013, 2). A positive development for education has been the specific attention that has been given in the discussion to the primacy of quality (Beyond2015 2013, 2). These positives speak to many of the most important criticisms that have been made about the inattention of the MDGs to issues of substance such as human rights – what is in them – and to the processes surrounding their development (Amin 2006).

And so with all these positives, is there anything still left to be said? Yes, there is. Two issues are consequential. The first returns to the issues of procedure and the second hones in on a question of substance, that of quality.

Despite the assurances that consultation will be much more inclusive there remains an anxiety about how the separate but articulated dynamics 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 the Unicef. Wisor (2013, 19) has suggested the need for what he calls citizen assemblies through which the globe can deliberatively assemble and, if necessary, vote on key questions. The practicalities of this kind of suggestion, appealing as it might be, particularly when seen against the time-frame of 2015 that the process has available to itself, and, worryingly, the absence of a culture of critical and democratic deliberation in many countries of the world, even in the liberal democracies, is an important question about which one should be concerned.

The substance question with respect to what quality means is even more difficult. The argument is made here that the world has come to an intense moment of difficulty in thinking about the question of quality. While commentators and scholars acknowledge that the post-2015 MDGs will have to pay much more attention to education quality, they generally have converged and settled far too easily on what quality is and what it stands for. The outcome of this settlement is in many ways indicative of the issue of how a global process attends to the enormously complex challenge of deciding how education will serve the best interests of the entire globe and does not succumb to models of quality which struggle with ethical questions such as, at the macro-level, the continued viability of global lifestyles normatively calibrated around excess, and, at the micro-level, respect for ways of life in marginal communities of the world that are not intelligible to the mainstream in the world’s metropoles. The essential challenge before the diverse nations of the globe is how they, as the World Bank (2012, 12) says, “unleash the power of the human mind” and provide young people with i), “the knowledge and competencies that help (them) live healthy, productive and satisfying lives,” and ii), as the Delors Commmision urged (1999), live together and confront the large question of what it means to be a human being. A good education is not, therefore, just about “learning… reading, writing, and arithmetic…. problem-solving skills are invaluable for people to function well at home, in their communities, and at work (ibid). How this profound insight is translated into policies that will guide individual nations and communities of nations to act in both their own interests and in a much wider awareness of what is just and sensible is the difficulty. What has happened, towards resolving this difficulty, is that the countries of the world have effectively ceded responsibility for coming up with a durable and defensible response to this question to the testing agencies and the instruments of standardised tests.

But what’s the problem, it might be asked. It is a fact that countries need to be concerned when their children perform poorly on benchmarked tests. It is a problem when their children read two or three grades below the level of the children of their counterparts in other parts of the world and cannot compute at what is understood to be a basic level. In response, it has to be said that, of course, countries that perform poorly, even on questionable metrics, have reason to be worried about what they are doing.

The challenge that benchmarking or standardised testing constitutes is, however, to make the problem a straight-forward educational problem. There is more to it though. There are two levels of problems. The first is about what is in standardised testing and the second about how one gets to a reasonable degree of agreement about what a standard should be. With respect to the first, four features characterise and bedevil standard-setting exercises – narrow conceptions of goals of education; a conflation of performance or attainment on a test with quality; an underplaying of pedagogies and the reduction of the complexity of the cognitive act to instrumental routines, and a focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other areas of learning. Critics such as Beyond2015 go a long way towards addressing this problem in their argument that the content of a quality education must include skills “such as comprehensive sexuality education and education for sustainable development and the green economy” (Beyond2015 2013, 3).Even this is not inclusive enough. Where is consideration of the world’s marginalised people and their cultures in this?

This brings one to the hard question of the conventional wisdom around how universals are to be determined. Standardised-testing as it is currently practised offers the world one way in which the fundamental question of how difference, national, cultural and interest – religious, linguistic, political, or whatever – is recognised and accommodated. It is suggested here that the world is ineluctably globalised. This cannot be undone. But people everywhere, no matter how insignificant they might be in the global scheme of things, have, maximally, the right to argue for what they want for their children, and, minimally, the full opportunity to critically respond to any global standard to which they are required to conform. This, as the order of business for global dialogue, is an absolute imperative. Because what happens now in the deep rural context of Bangladesh is of significance for the fashion houses of Paris requires consideration of the modalities of how people engage each other in dialogue. The world is moving towards openness but has not yet committed itself to a critical process of how its value differences around questions such as progress are to be resolved. These are difficult questions and they suggest that perhaps the goal of getting to 2015 with the chance of actually fulfilling the promise that is in the current discussion is premature. The goal should perhaps be to aim at a more distant date in the future and to consider the advice of Wisor (2013) in terms of how one could be building citizen assemblies everywhere around the globe. These assemblies must, however, not be naïve exercises of opinion-expressing. They have to be deliberative. Available in them must be information and expertise about the futures that are open to the world which people must have deliberated over in a clear-eyed way. The stakes are too high to do anything less.


Amin, Samir, 2006. The Millennium Development Goals: A critique from the south. In Monthly Review 57 (10), http://monthlyreview.org/2006/03/01/the-millennium-development-goals-a-critique-from-the-south.

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Morton, Bill, 2012. The MDGs post-2015: Why we should do less. http://devpolicy.org/the-mdgs-post-2015-why-we-should-do-less.

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Vernon, Phil, 2013. The welcome richness and diversity of debate about the post-2015 goals. In http://philvernon.net/2013/03/29thye welcome-richness-and-diversity-of-debate-about-the-post-2015-goals/.

Wisor, Scott, 2013. Citizen deliberation and the post-2015 development framework. http://www.beyond2015.org/sites/default/files/wisor_AfterMDGs.pdf.

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