Revisiting quality in African Education for the Sustainable Development Goals

Over the past 27 years since the Jomtien Education Conference in Thailand, there has been much debate on focusing on quality in African education. UN agencies like UNESCO and UNICEF as well as the World Bank, the African Union and the Commonwealth have all delved into the issue of quality in African Education. In the seven Biennials and two Triennial meetings that ADEA conducted since 1993, much emphasis focused on quality in education problems with the 1997 and 2001 Biennials focusing exclusively on quality in education in Africa. But what have we achieved so far in terms of bringing the quality component fully into African education ?

As we discuss quality in education, there are several elements that we will need to examine. We must be mindful of confusing “institutional effectiveness” with educational quality. In other words, we should be able to know the difference between “education” and “schooling”. Education can be seen as “the development of desirable qualities in people” with an understanding that educational purposes are a prerequisite to any detailed consideration of quality schooling. On the other hand, education is also about providing a service which is of educating young people through institutionalised and universalised “organised” learning.

Traditionally, the “economist” view of education uses quantitative, measurable outputs as a measure of quality. We see this, for instance in enrolment ratios and retention rates, rates of return on investment in education regarding earnings and cognitive achievement as measured in national or international inquiries. On the other hand, what we know as the progressive or humanist tradition tends to place more emphasis on educational processes. The word « indicators » implies a positivist approach to measuring quality and so, tends not to be used within this tradition. We base judgements of quality on what happens in schools and the classroom. Basic cognitive skills, literacy and numeracy, as well as general knowledge, are considered vital to quality. However, we also recognise schools as places where learners acquire attitudes and cultural values. Hence, we include characteristics such as learner-centred pedagogies, democratic school governance and inclusion in notions of quality education.

We associate each of these divergent approaches with a large international development organisation. The “economist” view tends to dominate World Bank thinking on education. The World Bank is a bank and, therefore, justifies its loans for education development regarding public financial returns. The “economist” view has focused on investment in the improvement of primary education provision and rationalised this in terms of economic and social development. The work of human capital theorists is drawn on to argue that education is a necessary, although not sufficient condition for national economic development. Reports have linked rates of return analysis at the World Bank with education to gain higher earnings. Other World Bank studies have also been used to argue that education relates to high productivity in the agricultural sector. Other arguments have associated primary education support to social development through reference to studies linking fertility levels, improved child health and nutrition and attitudinal modernity to primary schooling. Attitudinal modernity refers to “adopting rational, empirical, egalitarian beliefs, which are a precondition for functioning effectively in the political and economic institutions required for development.” Researchers using current data sets and sophisticated statistical analysis continue to make the same arguments for investing in primary education. Researchers holding the “economist” view have even proceeded to discuss the importance of “cognitive competencies”, emphasising literacy and numeracy as the principal pathway between education and development.

Since its inception, UNESCO has viewed education as essential although not sufficient for human development and as having cultural, even spiritual, benefits. We currently realise this emphasis across the UNESCO “themes” that border on cultural and linguistic diversity in education. These also stand out on the issues that focus on peace and human rights education, inclusive education, and education for sustainable development. We recall that the United Nations declared 2005-2014 as the “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development-. According to UNESCO, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers people to change the way they think and work towards a sustainable future.

UNICEF has considered the definition and achievement of quality education as an ongoing challenge with continuing debate on what quality in education means and how to assess it with a more “holistic and comprehensive” view of quality education based on “Child-Friendly Schooling”. These include the development and adoption of quality standards, capacity building for teachers on quality learning and teaching based on the child-friendly school approach, and promoting an enabling school environment.
The Delors Report “Learning : the treasure within” published in 1996 contained UNESCO’s vision for a global education. The basis of the report is the four pillars of education which are « learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be ». The Delors Report has been influential in the development of the concept of Life Skills which incorporates social attitudes, basic knowledge and practical skills. Life skills include, but are considerably wider than vocational skills, practical skills and knowledge that lay the foundation for young people to be economically productive when they enter the world of work. New curricular areas or cross-cutting themes, such as peace education, health or education for sustainability, can be viewed as focusing on the relatively neglected pillars of learning to live together and learning to do. All these had formed the basis from where we have drawn over the years all these issues about quality in education.

The Education for All (EFA) movement assumed a humanist stance concerning education. Their rationale for taking a particular ideological stance about interpreting and prioritising quality rests on the binary logic of promoting human development and human rights. With the targets set, individual governments, NGOs and external partner agencies were encouraged to cooperate in finding and implementing strategies to achieve them. The rhetoric of EFA documents influenced discourse on quality education by governments and institutions, including the World Bank around the world. A common cause between the humanist approach and its most well-known international advocate, UNESCO, and the economic approach of the World Bank lay behind the Jomtien Conference and the ensuing global EFA movement. The 1990 World Declaration on Education for All called for the universalisation of primary education, a goal that the World Education Forum held in Dakar emphasised in 2000 and which constituted the second of eight Millennium Development Goals.

The Dakar Framework for Action affirmed the World Declaration’s commitment to improving access with quality. The Regional Framework for Sub-Saharan Africa stated that the priority areas of focus would be “access and equity, quality and relevance, capacity building and partnerships”. Signatories to the Dakar Framework for Action committed themselves to improving quality along with access. The Dakar Framework also reaffirmed Jomtien’s commitment to achieving gender equality within basic education and meeting the learning needs of disadvantaged groups, most especially those with disabilities. The Dakar Framework placed greater emphasis on quality than any other internationally ratified text had in the past. It called for equity and inclusion concerning both access and achievement. It also highlighted learning outcomes as key indicators of education quality and called for the inclusion of life skills in basic education curricula, which incorporate the learning to live together and the learning to be pillars defined in the Delors report.

The 2005 EFA Global Monitoring Education for All Report emphasised on the quality of education and progress towards achieving the MDGs and related development outcomes. There were recurrent references to various components of educational quality that can be taken to form a useful analytical framework for the concept. We identify these elements as effectiveness, efficiency, equality, relevance and sustainability. These five areas served as a basis for analysing the quality of educational innovations aimed at any aspect of the education system such as policy changes, national administration, local government, and classroom interventions.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development approved two years ago by the United Nations is an inter-governmental commitment and “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity ». It has 17 integrated and indivisible Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which balance the three dimensions of sustainable development : the economic, social and environmental. These goals confirm the scale and ambition of this new universal agenda. Education is central to the realisation of this new development agenda. It is a standalone goal (SDG4), with seven outcome targets and three means of implementation. The goal of quality education reads as follows : “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Education does not restrict itself to SDG4 alone. The targets of five goals specifically mention Education and link it with almost all the other SDGs in one way or another. These goals include Health and Well-being, Gender Equality, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Climate Change Mitigation. 
Education is, therefore, the key to human fulfilment, preparation for the world of work and contributes to social progress and social change. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 and its Continental Education Strategy for 2016 -2025 also articulate these points. The SDG4 – Education 2030 constitutes a renewed focus on active learning and the acquisition of relevant knowledge, skills and competencies. It also concentrates on the relevance of learning, both in terms of vocational and technical skills for decent work, as well as for global citizenship in a plural, interdependent, and interconnected world.