How can we leave no one behind in education and learning?

This post is written by Jordan Naidoo, Director Education for All, UNESCO, and Manos Antoninis, Senior Policy Analyst, Global Monitoring Report, and is the twelfth in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be drafted to include all social and economic groups by inviting a range experts to write on key SDG areas.


The new international agenda is at last taking seriously the destabilising effects of inequality on achieving sustainable development. In the case of education, unequal distribution of schooling opportunities has been shown to lead, among other negative impacts, to slower economic growth and increased probability of conflict outbreaks. Not least is the recognition that inequalities in education are a primary determinant of inequalities in income and opportunity. Not surprisingly attention to inequality is a central concern of the new education agenda as emphasized at World Education Forum in May with the Incheon Declaration stating explicitly that “no target should be considered met unless met for all”.

Target 4.5 in the SDG agenda calls on countries to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations”. The selection of vulnerable groups could have been easily expanded to include, for example, children in conflict zones, those residing in poor households, living in sparsely populated regions, in migrant families, belonging to indigenous or nomadic groups, language or ethnic minorities and so on. While the target does not specifically mention these or other excluded groups a commitment to leaving no one behind requires that all countries address all forms of exclusion and discrimination in education.

One should not underestimate the fact that, historically, in many contexts education has been responsible for generating inequalities and perpetuating disadvantage. However, the renewed emphasis on inequality and the increasing availability of detailed information offers an opportunity to realize the full potential of education to reduce and even eliminate inequalities. The World Inequality Database on Education shows how countries at similar levels of educational development differ with respect to their record across different population groups. For example, only 71% of the poorest children completed primary school in the Philippines compared to 85% of the poorest children in South Africa, even though 91% of children completed primary school on average in the two countries in 2013.

Let us also not forget that the measured inequalities often capture only those in school. In Senegal, about 38% of grade 6 students had achieved the basics in reading. But only 16% of children of grade 6 age had achieved the same, which is not surprising considering that only about a third of children completed primary school. The challenge remains to ensure that our measures of education inequality capture not only those in the education system but also those outside it.

While international agencies have made progress in generating interest in education inequality, ministries of education will need to take a greater interest in monitoring the educational progress of sub-populations. This will require changing of mind-sets and build capacity to collect and analyse data differently and to act upon such analyses. The international community can help and one idea flagged at the World Education Forum in May, which emphasised that “no target should be considered met unless met for all”, was the establishment of an inter-agency group that would support countries that are committed to improving their understanding of education inequalities.

Knowing where we stand – and what explains the level of inequality observed – is an important starting point. But it will not be sufficient to help guide a government on what it will need to do to reduce inequalities and cater for the needs of the marginalized. Countries need support to learn from what others do, what the scale of these efforts is, and how successful they are. Some efforts are being initiated to develop a framework that better maps policies across countries that promote equity in education. However, more will need to be done in the coming 2-3 years to share such knowledge so that future policies are better informed for consistent global impact.

What is also needed is a stronger focus on understanding the different elements of education systems and processes that contribute to and sustain inequality. The mechanisms that generate inequality can be found in many places: in the content of textbooks that promote gender discrimination, in the tolerance towards shadow education systems that privilege further those already privileged, or in inefficient deployment practices that condemn those learners most in need to having teachers who are less prepared.

We have a long way to go to ensure nobody is left behind in education and learning – but we have to seize the moment and focus our joint efforts to deliver on this obligation. While education alone cannot reduce inequality, it remains an important part of any efforts to reduce inequality. In such efforts within the post 2015 context we must ensure not only equality of educational opportunities but also of outcomes if we are to be true to leaving no one behind.

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