The World is Off Track to Deliver on its Education Commitments by 2030

By Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, and Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Without a shift from ‘business as usual’, the world will miss its goal of a quality education for all by 2030, according to our first-ever projections on progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4).

We are almost one-third of the way to 2030 and the generation that should finish secondary education by the deadline is making its way into the world’s primary classrooms. Yet if current trends continue, in 2030, when all children should be in school, one in six aged 6-17 will still be excluded. Many children are still dropping out too: by 2030, only six in ten young people will be completing secondary education. There is a real risk that the world will fail to deliver on its education promises without a rapid acceleration of progress.


Leaders at this week’s 2019 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) – the apex mechanism for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – will review progress on education for the first time. The meeting could not be more timely. Education is an accelerator for all the other goals in the SDG Agenda. If we do not achieve the education goal, SDG 4, the other global goals will not be achieved either. It is time for political leaders to #Commit2Education and put an end to complacency.

Not only is the goal of universal primary and secondary completion far off track, but, the call to focus on equity must be prioritised for targets to be met. Only 4% of children from the poorest families, but 36% of those from the richest families, complete upper secondary school in low-income countries at present.

The education goal, SDG 4, also included a strong focus on learning. If the world is to achieve these learning targets, the rates of progress seen in the best-performing countries must be replicated everywhere else. Today, however, a large share of students do not achieve minimum proficiency in reading. If these trends continue, learning rates are expected to stagnate in middle-income countries and drop by almost one-third in Francophone African countries by 2030.

Of particular concern is that the proportion of trained teachers has been falling in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000, rather than rising, mostly because schools hire contract teachers – often unqualified – to responds to the growing demand for education. Greater investment is needed to train and recruit teachers, while developing new pedagogical approaches to support quality education.

Percentage of trained teachers by region, 2000–2017


SourceUIS database.

Lifelong learning also requires attention from policymakers: 750 million adults cannot read today, and while literacy rates are growing steadily, around 20% of youth and 30% of adults will still be unable to read in low-income countries by 2030 on current trends.

Youth and adult literacy rate, 2000–2016 and projections to 2030


SourceUIS database and projections.

Our new projections, which are released in the publication Meeting Commitments: Are countries on track to achieve SDG 4?, make the case for a rallying call for countries to #Commit2Education to get back on track. We ask you to join us in asking countries to prioritise two solutions to turn these results around:

  • Make greater investments to achieve the goal: Aid to education has stagnated since 2010, and one in four countries still spend below the two minimum finance benchmarks to which they committed in 2015.
  • Produce more and better data: Currently, fewer than half of countries report the data needed to monitor progress towards SDG 4, including on key indicators, such as learning outcomes in primary and secondary education. Data are a necessity – not a luxury – for every country, which is why partners are making the call to #FundData.

The UIS and GEMR propose six steps to accelerate progress by looking beyond ‘business as usual’:

  1. Beyond averages: Sharpen the focus on equity to ensure that nobody is left behind
    • Governments should finance household surveys and improve collaboration between education ministries and statistical offices to target policies towards those in danger of being left behind.
    • International partners should coordinate funding for household surveys and pool resources to make good use of the information that is already available.
  1. Beyond access: Focus on learning and its monitoring, not just on the number of children in classrooms
    • Governments should finance national assessments to inform policy, curricula and teacher training, and fund participation in regional or international assessments.
    • International partners should coordinate funding for learning assessments to lower costs and support the development of national assessment capacity.
  1. Beyond basics: Expand the content of education beyond reading, writing and mathematics to embed the learning needed for healthy and prosperous societies
    • Governments should finance the analysis of national curricula and textbooks to identify areas for improvement and alignment with the SDGs, from gender equality and human rights to the skills needed for decent jobs.
    • International partners should coordinate research and policy dialogue to explore how learners can make better use of their knowledge as agents of change.
  1. Beyond schooling: Expand the focus to include adults
    • Governments should finance labour force surveys and direct assessments to understand how skills are distributed across populations and to inform the design of education and training programmes.
    • International partners should coordinate improvements in labour force survey questions on youth and adult education and training. 
  1. Beyond education: Improve cross-sectoral cooperation
    • Governments and international partners should work together to develop key indicators, such as those related to early childhood development and other factors that have a major influence on education.
  1. Beyond countries: Enhance regional and international coordination
    1. Governments and international partners should work together in regional and global fora, such as the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG), which discusses SDG 4 benchmarks, methodologies and the financing of data collection and helps broker between countries and donors to promote information sharing.

Many countries are already looking beyond business as usual and are incorporating the SDG targets not just in their data collection activities but also into their education plans, as shown in a companion publication from the GEM Report: Beyond Commitments: How countries implement SDG 4. Their commitments should provide a template for others to follow.

We hope that the world leaders at the HLPF will hear this warning, and use the opportunity to meet this challenge, and commit to this vital – and still achievable – goal.

We Need More and Better Data on Education

38 organizations issue a collective call to fund education data that will allow the world to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4

Back in February, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and its partners sent out an urgent call to make the case for education data. Now we have an opportunity to make that case – loudly and clearly – directly to policy-makers.

Hundreds of international, regional and national policymakers will be in New York from 9 to 18 July to discuss global progress in education during the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to miss. That’s why we are issuing a collective call for greater funding for data on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4): a quality, inclusive education for all. Our message is clear: we need more and better data not only to monitor progress towards that goal but also to achieve it.

Data for action and results

It is true that significant strides have been made since 2000, with more children in school than ever before and a narrowing of the gender gap in primary education in particular. But many challenges persist, with 262 million children and adolescents – one in every five – out of school. That figure rises to a shocking one in three children excluded from education in the world’s poorest countries.

Then there are the challenges related to learning and education quality. An estimated 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. While one-third of them are out of school, two-thirds are sitting in the world’s classrooms, waiting for an education that delivers. Such alarming statistics demonstrate that data can serve as a wake-up call for action.

The urgent need to support countries

Policymakers need more precise and timely data to know which children, youth and adults are making progress and which are not, and why. Yet today, education planners in many countries are working in the dark, without the data they need to target policies and resources. Many national statistical offices still struggle to report data on the basics – from the numbers of girls who never set foot in a classroom to the number of schools with clean drinking water.


To track progress towards SDG 4, policymakers also need a broader span of education data, from expenditure on education to teacher training. They need data on new and more complex indicators, particularly those related to learning, skills and equity. This means looking beyond basic indices to capture more disaggregated data on the compounding and cumulative impacts of poverty, gender, disability, conflict as well as on learning outcomes.

There is a growing recognition of the need for better data for better policies, which is why countries have agreed to an SDG 4 monitoring framework that includes 43 global and thematic indicators. Yet today, fewer than half of countries report data on flagship indicators, such as learning outcomes in primary and secondary education.

A strong investment case

The UIS has calculated the costs of continuing to do business as usual against the costs of making the necessary investment in education data. The results are conclusive: it would cost on average about US$1.4 million per year per country to produce all of the SDG 4 indicators (or an overall global investment of $280 million per year). This is a small price to pay when set against the vast benefits of providing a quality education for all and the unacceptable costs of lost prospects for current and future generations.


Studies have shown that inefficiency levels in education systems can be as high as 30%, with, for example, many students repeating grades or leaving school early – a dreadful waste of resources. The benefits of having data to identify under-performing schools and children at risk are self-evident and confirmed by even the most conservative scenario.

Better data would lead to a minimum 10% gain in efficiency on average in most countries. So, in return for an annual investment of US$1.4 million on education data, a country save an average of US$143 million a year in the running costs of its education system. Imagine having an additional US$143 million – on average – to spend on teachers, better classroom conditions and reaching marginalized children. To put it simply, investing millions today will save billions in the future.

A message from countries for the HLPF: More funding please

During recent regional meetings to prepare for this year’s HLPF, countries sent a strong message: more funding please. Delegates from the Asia-Pacific region reported that “greater investment was needed in national statistical systems that were struggling to meet the demand for more and better data for the Global Goals and targets” (ESCAP Regional Report). Countries in sub-Saharan Africa stressed the need for a “significant investment in data technologies, capacity, infrastructure, and human and financial resources” and called for a “solidarity fund for statistical development” (ECA Regional Report).

Data are a necessity – not a luxury – for all countries. With greater support, low-income countries could conduct surveys to track the educational pathways – and barriers – facing each individual in a household. They could see whether children with disabilities, for example, are in school or out. They could evaluate the skills of youth and adults to better target their policies and programs. Donors and development partners could leverage their investments, while civil society groups and communities could use the same information to help ensure that everybody – child, youth or adult – can have a quality education.

 This is why we have joined the UIS to take one message to policymakers and the international community: make 2019 the year that we fund data so that no one is left behind.

Amnesty International

ASER Pakistan

Bridge 47

Centre de Recherche pour la Gestion de la Biodiversité (CRGB)

Coalition Nationale pour l’ Education Pour Tous, Sénégal

Community Systems Foundation

Education and Academia Major Group


Global Campaign for Education

Global Education Monitoring Report

Global partnership for sustainable development data


Inclusion International

Innovations for Poverty Action

The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity
International Council for Adult Education (ICAE)

International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education

Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)


Leonard Cheshire Disability

Madagascar Initiatives for Digital Innovation (MAIDI)


ONE Campaign

Open Data Watch

Open Knowledge Foundation

Oxfam International 

PAL Network

Plan International

Réseau Mauritanien Education pour tous RMEPT /ADPDH

Results for Development

Right to education initiative

Royal Statistical Society

Save the Children

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (TReNDS & SDG Academy)

Twaweza East Africa

UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Women’s Major Group

WorldPop, University of Southhampton

If you believe in the power of data, join us in supporting this call:

  • share this blog
  • Join @UNESCOstat to endorse the call to #FundData


Join the Push for SDG 4 Data

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Better Data = Better Policies

This is a busy but exciting time at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), where we are getting ready to provide you with more country-level and timely data on all levels of education. On 28 February, we will be updating our global education database.

While the global numbers and regional averages will not change, we will be releasing more data from countries so that you have a more complete picture of the education situation facing children, youth and adults the world over.

With this data release, we want to encourage countries, donors, international organizations and engaged citizens – to make the case for education at the next High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which will meet this July and discuss global progress in education.  Even the most basic data show that we are far from the goal of ensuring that every child is in school and learning by 2030.

Too many children still don’t have access to education. Despite all the promises and all the efforts made to date, there are still around 262 million – or one out of every five – children, adolescents and youth aged 6 to 17 who are out of school. That figure rises to one in three children out of school in low-income countries. What’s more, our data reveal that progress has stalled, with the rates and numbers remaining more or less static for years.

The learning crisis is global. An estimated 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. While one-third of them are out of school, two-thirds are sitting in the world’s classrooms, waiting for the education they have been promised.

Our collective task is to ensure that every child is in the classroom and that every child acquires the basic skills they need for a fulfilling adult life. This is crucial, given the critical importance of learning for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

There is an urgent need for more and better data to build the education systems we need:

  • We need data to track progress over time.
  • We need data to pinpoint the barriers to education access and quality.
  • We need data that are disaggregated to ensure that no child is left behind.
  • We need data that support national priorities.
  • We need data that are internationally-comparable.
  • We need data that demonstrate what works, so that resources can be channelled for maximum impact.

It is therefore essential to better support countries that are struggling to meet the demand for more and better data for the SDGs.

We want to ensure that line ministries and national statistical offices have the training, resources and support they need to collect and use data to support their own education priorities. We want to ensure that standards and tools are in place to produce the international data we need to track progress and demolish barriers to the achievement of SDG 4.

Fund data

The UIS already supports national data collection and use, and develops global public goods as part of the investment case for data. And now we are calling on all development partners to fund global, regional and country-level data as a public good.

If you believe, as we do, in the transformative power of data, please join us in our quest to unleash that power to drive positive change. In the coming months, we will be working with partners, such as the Global Education Monitoring Report, to analyse the trends and demonstrate that “better data = better policies”.

But we cannot do this alone. We need your help to support the call for greater investment in education and data to ensure that no child is left behind. Together, let’s use the data as a rallying call for action and funding at the High Level Political Forum.

Join us on social media @UNESCOstat and the call to #FundData

New Data Reveal a Learning Crisis that Threatens Development Around the World

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), and Karen Mundy, Chief Technical Officer at the Global Partnership for Education (GPE)

New data released today by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) show that 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. This signals a learning crisis that could threaten progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The numbers are vast: the equivalent of three times the population of Brazil being unable to read or handle mathematics with proficiency. Such a waste of human potential tells us that getting children into the classroom is only half the battle. Now the challenge is to ensure that every child in that classroom is learning the basic skills they need in reading and mathematics, as a minimum.

6 out of 10 children and adolescents are not learning a minimum in reading and mathematics

Globally, 6 out of 10 children and adolescents are not learning a minimum in reading and mathematics, according to a new UIS paper. The total – 617 million – includes more than 387 million children of primary school age and 230 million adolescents of lower secondary school age.

This means that more than one-half – 56% – of all children won’t achieve minimum proficiency levels by the time they should be completing primary education. The proportion is even higher for adolescents at 61%.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the single largest number – 202 million – of children and adolescents who are not learning. Across the region, nearly 9 out of 10 kids between the ages of about 6 and 14 will not meet minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Central and Southern Asia has the second-highest rate, with 81% or 241 million not learning. The numbers and rates are also high in Western Asia and Northern Africa (46 million or 57% of the school-age population) and Eastern Asia and South-Eastern Asia (78 million or 31%).

The data suggest that the new numbers are rooted in three common problems. First, lack of access, with children who are out of school having little or no chance to reach a minimum proficiency level. Second, a failure to retain every child in school and keep them on track. And third, the issue of education quality and what is happening within the classroom itself.

Most children who are not learning are in school

The new UIS estimates on learning include children and adolescents in school and out. What is most surprising – even alarming – is that two-thirds of the kids who are not learning are in fact in school.

Of the 387 million primary school-age children unable to read proficiently, 262 million (or 68%) are in school. There are also about 137 million adolescents of lower secondary school age unable to read proficiently even though they are in school.

While the figures are staggering, they show the way forward. We know where these children live and go to school. They are not hidden or isolated from their governments and communities – they are sitting in classrooms with their own aspirations and potential. We can reach these children but not by simply hoping that they stay in school and grasp the basics. We must understand their needs and address the shortcomings of the education currently on offer.

This will require commitment and resources but also a new approach to improving the quality of education. This can only happen with data – which is why the UIS is working so closely with countries and partners like the Global Partnership for Education to help them explore the options and move forward.

About the new data

The new data are the very first to be gathered on progress towards SDG Target 4.1., which requires primary and secondary education that lead to ‘relevant and effective learning outcomes’.

To develop the estimates, the UIS created a new learning outcomes database that anchors the assessment results of more than 160 countries/territories between 1995 and 2015. The database uses two different benchmarks in order reflect the contexts of countries with different income levels. It uses the SACMEQ benchmark (referred to as the basic proficiency level) for reading and mathematics at the primary level.

In addition, the database includes results (which are presented in the new paper) using the minimum proficiency level defined by the IEA for PIRLS and TIMSS, which are international assessments involving middle- and high-income countries. For the secondary level, the benchmark used by PISA were applied.

A snapshot of learning worldwide

The new estimates offer a snapshot of the global learning situation and the crises brewing in different regions. Clearly, we are just at the start of a highly technical and political process needed to define the benchmarks and develop the tools needed to monitor and achieve SDG 4. These issues are discussed in the paper and will be more closely explored in upcoming blogs.

But without these new UIS estimates, we would have no clue that so many millions of children are not learning what they need to know, even those who have spent years in school. It is, in essence, a wake-up call for far greater – and urgent – investment in the quality of education.

This blog was also published by the Global Partnership for Education.

Tracking Literacy in an Increasingly Digital World

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

The theme of this year’s International Literacy Day on Friday, 8 September, is ‘Literacy in a Digital World’. The Day aims to highlight the kind of literacy skills people need to navigate this world and the literacy policies and programmes that can leverage the opportunities such a world provides.

There are so many positives about the digital technologies that are transforming the way we live, work and learn. But those who lack access to digital technologies and the skills to navigate them – particularly basic literacy – can find themselves side-lined by societies that are increasingly digital.

So how do we promote literacy in a digital world where UIS data show that 750 million adults (two-thirds of whom are women) including 102 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 – cannot even read or write a simple sentence?

Literacy day-image

First, we need to get to grips with the global literacy challenge. Basic literacy and numeracy are positioned as fundamental building blocks for lifelong learning under Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), which includes a specific target (4.4) to “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 addition to greater data on basic literacy and numeracy, we also need data on digital literacy, including data on the digital divide, with some people having less access than others to ICTs, less opportunity to use ICTs and lacking the empowerment to incorporate ICTs in their work and everyday life.

Indicator 4.4.1, selected for Target 4.4 by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), focuses on the: “Proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT) skills, by type of skill”. A second indicator has since been advanced: “Percentage of youth/adults who have achieved at least a minimum level of proficiency in digital literacy skills”.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the custodian agency responsible for developing the methodology and leading the data collection to produce Indicator 4.4.1, while UNESCO is responsible for reporting on progress towards Target 4.4.

ICT skills in a changing world

This welcome focus on ICT in the SDGs reflects the importance of such skills for workforce development. Their measurement, however, is a complex task for three reasons. First, there is no universal agreement on a definition of what these skills are. There are many definitions in use and they are often changing to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and digital work opportunities. Two decades ago, we were probably talking about the ability to use a computer for basic tasks. But today’s ICT skills span an expanding range of skills in different categories, such as computers, information, Internet, coding, data, mobile and life skills. All of these are brought together under the umbrella concept of some form of literacy (namely digital literacy, information literacy, data literacy).

Second – and to complicate things still further – the definition of each type of literacy is also subject to change over time and often overlap. Information literacy may be positioned separately to digital literacy, or it may be seen as part of it.

Third, definitions and assessments of Internet skills often assume computer skills. There is agreement that they are all skills that are relevant for work, but that makes it all the more important to specify precisely which ICT skills matter for “employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship”.

Data for lifelong learning

As part of the push for greater data on literacy overall, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is calling for a stronger focus on data to support the achievement of Target 4.4 and on other areas from pre-schooling to education for sustainable development, to build up a true picture of lifelong learning.

The UIS is also working to expand the pool of data on literacy worldwide in support of SDG Target 4.6, which aims to ensure that all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030 – critical skills for a digital age. The UIS collects data for more than 200 countries and territories through its annual surveys and partnerships, and these data are presented in a new fact sheet and the UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy, which features interactive maps and charts that can be shared and downloaded.


This go-to source for literacy data shows remarkable improvements in youth literacy rates. Half a century ago, 22% of people between the ages of 15 and 24 could not read or write a simple sentence compared to 9% today, and young people in Africa and Asia, in particular, are far more likely to be literate than they were 50 years ago. It remains to be seen if such progress translates into greater digital literacy in the years to come, if the digital divides can be narrowed.

To track change over generations, the UIS developed the elderly literacy rate. For example, in Southern Asia, more than twice as many young people have basic literacy skills (89%) than those aged 65 years or older (42%). However, this generation gap looks set to narrow as an increasingly literate youth population ages.

There are continuing concerns, however, about a persistent gender gap. Older women have not caught up with the men of their own generation in terms of literacy, and young women aged 15 to 24 years still lag behind men from that age group in parts of the world. In Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, women aged 15 years and older are one-fifth less likely to be literate than men in the same age group – a reflection of entrenched gender discrimination that works against girls’ education and women’s lifelong learning.

A new generation of literacy indicators

Such concerns reinforce the urgent need for greater investment in literacy programmes and in literacy data to achieve SDG Target 4.6. Fortunately a new generation of indicators is being developed with countries and partners under the umbrella of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML).

Given the UIS proposal to extend the new UIS Reporting Scales to include assessments of digital literacy, there is a pressing need for one definition that applies in all contexts to ensure sound measurement. This is why agencies like the ITU have joined GAML, which is already developing the methodologies needed to gather more nuanced data and the tools required for their standardisation. In particular, the Alliance is finding ways to link existing large-scale assessments to produce globally-comparable data to monitor the literacy skills of children, youth and adults, through close collaboration with a wide range of partners.

With so many millions of adults still unable to read or write, such efforts are vital if we are to reach the SDG literacy targets and ensure that future generations can participate in all of the opportunities offered by an increasingly digital world.