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Proposed Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education: an initial analysis

UN buildings, New York
UN buildings, New York

Rachele Tardi, Light for the World Representative to the UN and Nafisa Baboo, Light for the World Senior Advisor, Inclusive Education write about the Open Working Group process and inclusive education.

This article analyses Goal 4 of the proposed Open Working Group Outcome – “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all” – through a disability lens and looks at possible next steps that would help ensure that persons with disabilities are in reality “not left behind”.
The Open Working Group (OWG), an intergovernmental process to develop the Sustainable Development Goals, was established in January 2013 and started its work in March 2013. Its final document, adopted on July 19, 2014, contains 17 Goals and 169 Targets, with 9 explicit references to disability.[1]
From a disability advocacy perspective, it is very positive and reassuring to have the words “inclusive”, “equitable”, “quality”, “life-long” and, “for all”, in the title of proposed Goal 4 on education: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all”. The readmission of ‘inclusive’ can be accredited to the well-coordinated advocacy efforts of the Global Campaign for Education, IDA-IDDC and Global Partnership for Children with Disabilities. However our advocacy work is far from done.  

The big picture – the right to education for a decent life for 1 billion ensures sustainable development

A significant proportion of the estimated 58 million children still out of school arechildren with disabilities. In the next 15 years, we want to see them not only enrolled in their community schools but also progressing through education. We want to see them receiving quality education that provides them with the competencies and skills they need to have a decent life and livelihood.  An “inclusive education system at all levels” as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) will help get children with disabilities out of poverty and enable them to become productive citizens able to contribute to the economic development of their countries.  

Did you know that each additional year of schooling completed by an adult with disability living in low and middle income countries (LMIC), reduces by 2-5% the probability that his /her household will belong to the poorest two quintiles?[2]

Leveraging legal obligations and agreements of the education community

Let’s take a closer look at Goal 4. It is very positive to have the words “inclusive”, “equitable”, “quality”, “life-long” and, “for all”, in the title. Having “inclusive” in the title is very powerful and significant, since inclusive education is generally agreed by the education community to be the best means for achieving the universal right to education. This right is enshrined in numerous legal instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). 

Inclusive education benefits all children, not only those with disabilities, and it is “a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing exclusion within and from education.”[3] In the Dakar Framework for Action, the education community endorsed inclusive education as central to achieving education for all.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) clarifies the obligations of States, which would ensure the realisation of the right to education for persons with disabilities.  These obligations could help us frame suitable indicators for tracking progress.   For example, Article 9 on Accessibility obligates governments to ensure that school buildings, information and technologies are accessible and Article 24 on Inclusive Education outlines requirements for effective learning and participation such as appropriate support and training of teachers.

Targets that will certainly make a difference

Proposed Goal 4 embraces the need for inclusive education. However, the phrase “inclusive education” appears only in two places: in the title of the proposed goal and in 4.a, where “inclusive” refers to the learning environments. Since the number of targets are likely to be reduced, it is important to look at them carefully and consider which ones have the potential to change the situation of children with disabilities.

Since inclusive education is considered the most effective means for achieving education for all, “inclusive” should be stated again in the first 3 targets, which cover, respectively, primary and secondary education (4.1); early childhood (4.2) and tertiary education (4.3).
Education at all these levels should be characterized as “inclusive, equitable and quality education”.  Inserting ‘inclusive’ in these targets would:

-    deter governments from taking the convenient approach of offering education to only a limited number of persons with disabilities in special settings and excluding the majority on the grounds of other institutions lacking capacity;

-    help ensure that the indicators for these targets include disaggregated data on the learners by disability (among the other dimensions)—and that data disaggregation by disability is mentioned in Goal 17. 18 on “Means of implementation”.

Target 4.2 on quality early childhood development, care and primary education also opens the door for early identification and interventions, which can help the child maximize their developmental potential.

Target 4.5 on the elimination of gender disparities in education and the commitment to ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous people and children in vulnerable situations by 2030 – should lead governments to take deliberate action to address the inequalities experienced by person with disabilities as this disaggregated data on disability would likely be an indicator against which they would have to report progress.  The UNESCO Institute for Statistics and UNICEF are working towards developing a methodology for tracking progress, and the technical experts are debating the global indicators which will inform the development of regional and country level indicators.

Goal 4.a b and c refer to the “Means of implementation”. The references ‘disability sensitive’ and ‘inclusive’ in 4.a, which refer to the learning environment, are very positive and can be strengthen by adding ‘accessible’. This would guarantee more significant and tangible reforms such as physically accessible buildings of learning institutions and education material in accessible formats such as audio, Braille and simple text – the availability and use of which are measurable. There is also a call for a specific target on trained teachers with stronger wording, as opposed to the issues of teachers being relegated to a ‘means of implementation’ as is currently the case in (4.c).  In accordance with the Muscat Agreement all learners are taught by qualified, professionally-trained, motivated, committed and well-supported teachers who use appropriate teaching methods. 

The Asia Pacific (Bangkok) Statement on Education Beyond 2015, an outcome from EFA consultation, which discussed gaps and strengths of the latest OWG document, emphasised that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) be utilised to the fullest extent in order to realise the Post-2015 education agenda. It is important to stand behind this call as ICTs in Education can increase quality and access to education for learners with disabilities e.g. learning material in accessible formats for the visually impaired.


Goal 4 is a great start for ensuring the right to education for all, including persons with disabilities. However, advocacy efforts need to continue in the months leading up to the UN Summit in September 2015, both in the New York-centred processes (including the upcoming Synthesis Report by the Secretary General) and in education-related conferences and international forums to ensure that the Post-2015 SDG on Education is in line with the CRPD, and that it really is a game changer for persons with disabilities. Some example of these international events include the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, in Japan in November 2014 and the World Education Forum to be held in Korea in May 2015.

[1] For more information: Elizabeth Lockwood, Final OWG document released after 26 hours of negotiations
[2] Banks, L.M. and Polack, S. The Economic Costs of Exclusion and Gains of Inclusion of People with Disabilities: Evidence from Low and Middle Income Countries. ICED Research Report 2014.
[3] UNESCO, Overcoming Exclusion through Inclusive Approaches in Education: a challenge and a vision, Paris, UNESCO, 2003; cited in UNESCO, Guidelines for Inclusion: ensuring access to education for all, Paris, 2005, pp. 8-9.

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