Universal primary education was only the beginning: What the MDGs did and didn’t do for children’s learning

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

This year is especially important for the future of children’s education: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire in September, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will set the agenda for the next 15 years of global progress on education and development.

When the MDGs were adopted in 2000, approximately 100 million children of primary school age were out-of-school. Since then, this number has fallen by almost half. The literacy rate among young people between 15 and 24 years of age has increased globally from 83 per cent in 1990 to 91 per cent in 2015. These numbers should be lauded, but carefully. In the shadows of these global achievements hide 57 million children who are still out of school, and more than 796 million people who are completely or functionally illiterate.

How did we get here? Why do we still have so far to go? These are the questions that must be answered as we reflect on and commit to the new SDGs.

How did we get here? What the MDGs accomplished for education

Over the past 15 years, World Vision, like many other organisations, focused on getting children into school to support the MDG target of universal primary education. Given the large numbers of out-of-school children at the turn of the millennium, it was our responsibility to ensure that schools were built, that children had the uniforms and supplies needed to learn and that parents could afford to send their children to school.

World Vision played a critical role in the huge reduction of out-of-school children of primary school age during the fifteen years of MDG progress. While it took a concerted effort by the entire education development community to make a shift of that proportion, World Vision became known as an active contributor to the construction of the classrooms that were needed to accommodate the influx of previously out-of-school children.

Why do we still have so far to go? The global learning crisis

It was only after the World Bank Independent Consultants report, “From Schooling Access to Learning Outcomes: an Unfinished Agenda,” came out in early 2006 that questions arose about whether the focus on access to education was enough to ensure its quality.

The expansion in children’s school enrolment since the adoption of the MDGs strained the capacity of education systems to ensure quality learning.

The expansion in children’s school enrolment since the adoption of the MDGs strained the capacity of education systems to ensure quality learning. Examples of classrooms with 50 to 70 students to one teacher became commonplace. In desperate attempts to hire enough teachers, those who didn’t speak the language of local children were being recruited. The global education community was doing the work necessary to get children into school, but we realised that children weren’t necessarily learning when they got there.

We’re seeing the results of this today: Despite more children being in school than ever before, there is a global learning crisis. Over 250 million children – including many of the most vulnerable – are not learning basic literacy and numeracy skills even though half have attended school for at least four years.

Beyond building schools: Ensuring quality education for all children

Since 2011, World Vision’s response to the global learning crisis has catalyzed a new way forward in education programming: We continue to ensure schools are built and that classrooms are properly supplied, but now we work in- and out-of-school to make sure children are showing measurable increases in learning outcomes.

One way World Vision is approaching the issue of quality education is through Literacy Boost, an evidence-based literacy programme that supports the development of reading skills in young children in and out of school[1].

Nearly 750,000 children participate in after-school reading clubs in Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, where our largest Literacy Boost programming effort is underway, nearly 750,000 children participate in after-school reading clubs that reinforce literacy skills children learn in school through stories, games and other creative activities. In partnership with the government and local communities, about 2,400 reading clubs have been established across the country. World Vision has trained over 9,000 community volunteers to run the clubs. This approach is working.

Our most recent baseline assessment indicated that before the programme began only 3 per cent of students sampled could read with comprehension. After one year, students participating in Literacy Boost gained significantly more in each reading sub-test than students who had not. The endline assessment showed that 28 per cent of Literacy Boost students had become new readers compared to 12 per cent in control schools[2].

The future of quality education and the Sustainable Development Goals

Members of the United Nations will meet later in September at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss and adopt the SDGs. We need global leaders to refocus on the role of education in poverty reduction. We can’t build a world in which all children have the literacy skills they need to succeed in school and in life without a concerted effort by the global community and its leaders to appropriately measure and fund quality education programming.

We need global leaders to refocus on the role of education in poverty reduction.

The most vulnerable children need to be in the forefront of all discussions leading up to the adoption of the SDGs, as do the millions of children who missed out on the success of the MDGs and are at risk of being forgotten again. Quality education and the acquisition of literacy skills can help lead to a new era of global development, and continued momentum towards a world where children are educated for life.

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Linda Hiebert is the Senior Director, Education and Life Skills at World Vision International. She has over 25 years of experience in international development, including work as programme officer, director and vice-president in a number of countries and regions. Linda has a Bachelor's degree in Nursing, and a Master's degree in Development from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Follow Linda on Twitter at @LindaHiebertWV.


[1] Literacy Boost is a copyrighted tool designed, developed, and owned by Save the Children

[2] Students in control/comparison schools receive the Literacy Boost programme the following school year.