Enabling Access to Quality Education for Sustainable Development

The Global Learning Crisis

In 2019, the World Bank estimated that 53% of children finishing primary school in low and middle-income countries (and as many as 80% in some low-income countries) still could not read and understand a simple text. The youth of the international community are experiencing what has been termed “learning poverty.” Learning poverty is fundamentally connected to the fact that basic school infrastructure is far from universal. In 2020, approximately one quarter of primary schools did not have access to basic services such as electricity, drinking water and basic sanitation facilities. Figures are substantially lower for other facilities such as information and communications technology and disability-adapted infrastructure, with about 50% of primary schools having such access. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the global learning crisis, as many children were pulled from school for over two years and education funding plummeted. The longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. It is estimated that after the pandemic, over 24 million learners globally may never return to school. Furthermore, the global learning crisis has added to the global gender crisis. The pandemic compounds existing restrictive gender norms that constrain girls’ school attendance: risk of child marriage, early preganancy, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation and child labor. Girls between 5 and 14 years old spend 40% more time on unpaid household chores and care work than boys their age, compromising their education. How do we move forward in solving this crisis? 

Sustainable Development Goal 4:

On September 25th, 2015, the United Nations (UN) adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda which outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The goals collectively address the interconnected and multifaceted issues around the globe, stipulate how we should shape our future social and economic development, and outline what kind of transitions are required to achieve this.

An indispensable goal for the achievement of sustainable development is SDG 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” While “quality education” is a goal in itself, it is important to avoid regarding the 17 SDGs as fragmented. Many of the goals can, in fact, be interpreted as correlating with each other. For example, research on the benefits of education attainment shows that those with higher skill levels tend to secure better paid jobs, enjoy better health, be more involved in their communities, and practice more active citizenship. This suggests that education can act as a powerful catalyst to develop a more cohesive and equal society. 

SDG 4 Targets:

  • 4.1 – Ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. 
  • 4.2 – Ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education. 
  • 4.3 – Ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university. 
  • 4.4 – Substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship. 
  • 4.5 – Eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigneous people, and children in vulnerable situations. 
  • 4.6 – Ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy. 
  • 4.7 – Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. 
  • 4.8 – Build and upgrade educational facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all. 
  • 4.9 – Substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing states, and African countries.
  • 4.10 – Substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developed countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states. 

Education Targets and Indicators are Too Limited:

While Goal 4’s targets and indicators touch on important points of gender equality and increased opportunities for further education, there are many significant aspects of equitable education which are ignored by the Goal. Ensuring equal access is not simply a matter of enrolling marginalized or underserved groups in schools or universities, but it should also include looking at the ways in which education might reproduce inequalities, and working in multiple ways to address this at interconnected levels from the classroom up to the administration and policy formation. A fundamental flaw in Goal 4 is there is little engagement with the left-behind groups in educational policies such as: rural and remote areas, orphans, street-connected children, children displaced by conflict, and non-documented migrants. For many of these groups, education remains out of reach. Exclusion from education is one piece of an intricate web of human rights violations. We need to further understand how these groups’ situations are affecting their access to education, and how education can better serve to end their broader exclusion, or at least mitigate its harm. Education must be provided for all, as it can provide a protective and stable environment for a young person, giving them self confidence and the skills needed to build a better future. 

Furthermore, while enrolling children and achieving adequate numbers of school places and teachers is crucial, it is just the start of the process. The quality of what is learnt and how it is learnt is of great importance too. School curricula must address the challenges students will face outside of school. While emphasis on reading and mathematical skills is extremely important, curricial that meets today’s challenges go beyond these basic skills to include: physical well-being (include sex-ed), and emotional well-being. There is discussion in the targets regarding school infrastructure such as the basic needs of electricity and wash services, but no mention of mental health and psychological support for students in a time when youth mental illness is climbing. Filling these gaps in education planning is necessary for sustainable development. 

It is also important to note that a government can invest in education to the highest level, but if they do not invest in job creation and a healthy labor market then people will not be able to maintain and utilize their high-level skills, and the education will go to waste. Sustainable development goal 4 must be thought of as one piece of the puzzle– connecting education to other development initiatives is crucial. 

“It has never been more crucial to make education a universal right, and a reality for all. Our rapidly changing world faces constant major challenges– from technological disruption to climate change, conflict, the forced migration of people, intolerance and hate– which further widen inequalities and exert an impact for decades to come.”
– Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO. 

Learn More:

EnvironFocus is hosting an online webinar event on Thursday, August 18th, 2022 from 11:00 AM to 12:30 PM EDT titled “Enabling Access to Quality Education for Sustainable Development.” We will be joined by guest panelists to reflect on core principles, exchange ideas, share strategies, and learn from each others’ analysis, challenges and questions. Panel presentations will be followed by a live Q&A session! If you are interested in learning more about SDG 4, you can purchase your ticket for the event here: https://www.environfocus.com/environfocusknowledge/event/qualityeducation/ 

We look forward to seeing you. 


Boeren, E. Understanding Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on “Quality Education” from micro, meso and macro perspectives. International Review of Education. 2019. 

G7 Report on Girls’ Education, 2021: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/g7-foreign-and-development-ministers-meeting-may-2021-communique/declaration-on-girls-education-recovering-from-covid-19-and-unlocking-agenda-2030 

United Nations Development Programme, Sustainable Development Goal 4, 2022: https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal4 

Unterhalter, E. The Many Meanings of Quality Education: Politics of Targets and Indicators in SDG4, 2019: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1758-5899.12591

World Bank, Learning Poverty, 2019: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/brief/learning-poverty 

Hope Elizabeth Tracey
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