The importance of education and its multifaceted nature is demonstrated by the fact that States commit to it in a number of ways and for a number of purposes. In addition to States’ legal commitment to the right to education, States have also politically committed to education as an integral part of achieving sustainable development through the newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (‘2030 Agenda’).

Sustainable development aims at 'eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, combating inequality within and among countries, preserving the planet, creating sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and fostering social inclusion' (paragraph 13, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development).

In 2015 the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda to build on the achievements and address the shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 2030 Agenda is broad and holistic in nature, covering systemic issues such as hunger, poverty, and inequality, as well as the broader governance issues of accountability, financing, and corruption. It includes seventeen sustainable development goals (‘SDGs’) which every State (not just the ‘Global South’) has committed to achieving by 2030. SDG Four is on education.

Even though States commit to the right to education legally and SDG Four politically, they are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Quality education is the foundation of sustainable development because it:

  • Facilitates the lifting of people out of poverty and prevents the perpetuation of poverty from generation to generation
  • Empowers marginalised groups
  • Enables the realisation of other human rights
  • Reduces social, economic, and power inequality
  • Drives sustainable and inclusive economic growth
  • Facilitates peace, tolerance, and respect for human rights

Equally, the right to education cannot be fully realised without sustainable development because poverty - as well as being unjust, unnecessary, and a human rights violation - is one of the biggest barriers to access to education.  

The Education 2030 Agenda comprises SDG Four on education and the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and the Education 2030 Framework for Action. The Incheon Declaration represents the firm commitment of States and the global education community to a single, renewed education agenda, based on SDG Four. The Framework for Action outlines a roadmap for the effective implementation of the Incheon Declaration.

The 2030 Sustainable Agenda for Sustainable Development standalone goal on education, reads:

SDG Four has ten associated ‘targets’ at the global level that are universally applicable (the last three targets are so called ‘means of implementation’):

4.1   Ensure universal, free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education

4.2   Ensure universal access to quality pre-primary education

4.3 Ensure equal access to quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education

4.4 Increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship

4.5 Ensure equal access to all levels of education particularly of marginalised groups

4.6 Achieve full literacy of youths and substantially increase literacy of adults

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.a Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all

4.b Substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries

4.c Substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states

An important feature of Education 2030 is that it is rights-based and seeks to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights as fundamental to achieving sustainable development. SDG Four largely aligns with the right to education. For example, there is an emphasis on quality education. Often, States concentrate their efforts on expanding access to education (as they did under the MDGs), neglecting the fact that an increase in enrolment rates requires additional investment in learning materials, teachers, infrastructure, etc.

The target to ensure free primary and secondary education (4.1) is another example of mutual reinforcement. According to international law, States have the immediate obligation to provide free primary education but can progressively realise secondary education. With this new education agenda, States have effectively created a fifteen year time limit to achieve free secondary education.

By including a commitment to equal access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education, Education 2030 also builds on the existing content of the right to education. The right to education applies to all stages of life, including early childhood, yet international human rights law does not clearly articulate a right to early childhood care and education (ECCE), although it does recognise its importance. However, States when applying the right to education to their national contexts have increasingly committed to and implemented ECCE. 

The right to education is a human right guaranteed by international law. When States commit to the right to education they do so legally, through the ratification of human rights instruments. Education 2030, however, does not create legal obligations. Rather States, through their political commitment, are expected to take ownership and establish a national framework, including: laws, policies, plans, and programmes for the effective implementation of Education 2030. The form of commitment is not an issue as such and does not belie the importance of the 2030 Agenda. In fact, political commitment allows the SDGs to be highly ambitious, comprehensive, and to address issues that can only be tackled through collective action, such as climate change.

However, given that States have extant legal obligations under international human rights law (their commitment to which is reaffirmed in paragraphs 18-19 of the 2030 Agenda), the national frameworks established by States to guide the implementation of Education 2030 must be in compliance with the right to education.

Here it is important to note that whilst there is a connection between economic and social rights and sustainable development; they are not the same thing. State efforts to realise SDG Four are not automatically synonymous with compliance with the right to education under international law. In fact, as Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, points out in his report on economic and social rights: States often invoke development and welfare initiatives when challenged to explain how they respect economic and social rights, however such initiatives may not protect and/or promote rights, in fact they may end up promoting the special interests of a targeted group (paragraph 6, A/HRC/32/31).

SDG Four, despite being rights-based, is not expressed as a human right. This is not a matter of language and hints at the biggest criticism of the 2030 Agenda: lack of accountability.

A key feature of international human rights law is that violators can be legally held to account and victims can access justice. Education 2030 does not entail legal accountability (because there is no legal commitment). Rather, States are expected - although there is no formal obligation - to establish effective, participatory, and transparent accountability mechanisms at the local and national levels.

The lack of accountability mechanisms in the architecture of the 2030 Agenda may prove detrimental to the achievement of Education 2030 by disincentivising States from taking concrete action and allowing States to implement development policies without input and scrutiny from key stakeholders.

However, this lack of legal accountability should not deter civil society from seeking accountability through alternative strategies. For instance, working with parliamentarians and capitalising on the significant media coverage the 2030 Agenda garners.

In addition, civil society and individuals can use human rights mechanisms where the 2030 Agenda and human rights align (see below for further information).

The architecture of the 2030 Agenda provides for voluntary, State-led ‘follow-up and review’ mechanisms at the national, regional, and international levels. These are intended to promote accountability but more closely resemble monitoring mechanisms. 

At the national level, States are expected to establish inclusive monitoring mechanisms to track progress and review implementation. Outcomes from national level monitoring will provide the basis to inform regional and international mechanisms.

Regional follow-up and review mechanisms are currently being developed, where the focus will be on peer learning and exchange of best practices. In addition UN Regional Economic Commissions and regional political and technical bodies will be involved, as well as civil society.

At the international level, the 2030 Agenda is monitored by the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). However, States are not obliged to undergo national reviews. The HLPF meets annually to keep track of global progress on implementation, provide political leadership and guidance, and address new and emerging issues, especially those of an international nature.

For further information on the follow-up and review mechanisms at each level, see paragraphs 72-91 of the 2030 Agenda.

Education 2030 is monitored by UNESCO which, as coordinator and convenor of Education 2030, is mandated to undertake advocacy to sustain political commitment; facilitate policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and standard setting; monitor progress towards the education targets; convene global, regional and national stakeholders to guide the implementation of the 2030 Agenda; and function as a focal point for education within the overall SDG coordination architecture (paragraph 17, Incheon Declaration). UNESCO will also produce annual Global Education Monitoring Reports.

Each SDG has accompanying targets and ‘global’ indicators to measure global progress towards meeting the targets and therefore the SDGs. One of the keys ways the above mechanisms will monitor each SDG is through an evaluation of the data collected for the indicators. For SDG Four, there are:

  • Eleven compulsory global indicators monitored by the HLPF and the larger UN system
  • Regional level indicators selected and monitored by regional follow-up and review mechanisms anchored by the regional UN Commissions
  • National level indicators consisting of additional indicators selected and monitored by individual States
  • 43 thematic indicators originally proposed in the Education 2030 Framework for Action to fully capture the depth and breadth of Education 2030. Currently 29 of these indicators can be reported on from 2017 and 14 require further refinement (see here for updated information).

(Note, indicators have not yet been formally adopted by the UN General Assembly and therefore may be subject to change.) For further information, see the Sustainable Development Goals indicators website.

Most data will be collected by the State. For many States the capacity and resources required to collect data for every indicator will be an issue. While all States are expected to produce data for the global indicators, many may end up prioritising the collection of data for certain thematic indicators over others. This is problematic because data provides information on where States are failing to progress, and without this information, States may not be able to adequately address these issues which could jeopardise States’ efforts to realise Education 2030 and the 2030 Agenda more generally.

There are also concerns about the indicators themselves. Specifically, some indicators do not satisfactorily measure progress towards each target, adequately measure the target, or fully capture human rights concerns.

For instance, for target 4.1 (Ensure universal, free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education) the proposed indicator is: Percentage of children/young people: (a) in grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics. This indicator selection prompted 214 civil society organisations to call for an additional indicator that captures the importance of completing free primary and secondary education.

Another important issue in terms of monitoring SDG Four is whether the data collected for the indicators will capture inequality and discrimination, given the vision of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind. Data that captures overall national progress towards the goals is extremely important; States will need to be able to assess the impact that national laws and policies have on wider enjoyment. However, data that measures national averages hides inequality between groups. Data will thus need to be disaggregated to allow us to see which groups are being left behind and implement programmes to ensure these groups are not ignored.

Many of the education global indicators require disaggregation by gender, location, and wealth. But other levels of disaggregation, for example, disability status, rurality, and minority status (where relevant to the national context) will only be collected if data are readily available or if the State decides to (indicator 4.5.1 requires parity ratios for each relevant indicator where data is available). However, given that many States will struggle to collect aggregated data for every indicator, it is unlikely that disaggregated data for every relevant indicator will be collected.

Following a human rights-based approach to data, data should ideally be disaggregated by the grounds of discrimination as set out in human rights treaties, and by at-risk groups according to the national context.

For available data for global and thematic indicators, see UNESCO eAtlas for Education 2030

For further information, see this OHCHR brief on human rights data and the Right to Education Monitoring Guide on the importance of disaggregated data

As yet, there are no formal or informal processes for civil society reporting on SDG Four, although there will be opportunity for civil society engagement at the national, regional, and international levels of the follow-up and review process.

Civil society can hold States to account using a human rights-based approach in their monitoring and advocacy efforts, for example, by reporting to human rights mechanisms at the national, regional, and international levels, especially where education as articulated in Education 2030 and the right to education converge (table forthcoming). 

For further information, see the Danish Institute for Human Rights’s Human Rights in Follow-up and Review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

To read more on applying human rights indicators to Education 2030, see our report Applying Right to Education Indicators to the Post-2015 Agenda

Guidance on monitoring the right to education can be found on our monitoring subsite which provides a step-by-step guide to monitoring the right to education using human rights indicators.

One of the key questions in the realisation of Education 2030 (and the 2030 Agenda as a whole) is how it will be paid for. UNESCO estimates that the total annual financing gap to achieve universal pre-primary, primary, secondary education of good quality is $US39 billion in low and middle income countries in 2015-30.

As a State-led initiative, the onus is on States to raise sufficient domestic resources to close this funding gap, with the Incheon Declaration recommending that States commit at least 4 - 6% of Gross Domestic Product and / or at least 15 - 20% of total public expenditure to education (paragraph 105). Paragraph 106 of the Incheon Framework for Action and target 17.1 of Goal Seventeen emphasises the importance of strengthening domestic resource mobilisation through widening of the tax base (ending harmful tax incentives), preventing tax evasion, and strengthening the ability of States to collect tax. For further information, see GMR’s policy paper on Increasing Tax Revenues to Bridge the Education Financing Gap.

Domestic financing of education is also addressed by international human rights law, which requires States to allocate resources to the realisation of the right to education. The obligations are particularly strong regarding obligations of immediate effect and minimum core obligations. These include ensuring non-discrimination in education and free and compulsory primary education, which also form part of the content of SDG Four. This means that human rights obligations directly apply to these specific aspects of SDG Four. It also means that States should, by law, prioritise the realisation of aspects of SDG Four which are also immediate and minimum core obligations under international human rights law. For more information, see our page on Education Financing.

It is clear that some States will not be able to achieve Education 2030 by themselves and will require assistance. This is also the case for the realisation of the right to education under human rights law, which highlights the importance of ‘international assistance and cooperation’ (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 2.1). The 2030 Agenda, under Goal Seventeen sets as a target (17.2) that developed countries commit 0.7 per cent of GNI for overseas development assistance.

However, according to UNESCO (Figure 1) aid allocated to education has decreased since 2010. Governments and donor agencies must reprioritise aid to education in order not to delay the achievement of Education 2030. Moreover, linked with the recognition that States strengthen domestic resource mobilisation, target 17.1 directs international support to improving domestic capacity for tax and other revenue collection in developing countries. This will enable States to finance education in a predictable, long-term, and sustainable manner - reducing overall reliance on aid.

Given the scope and ambition of the SDGs, achieving them will require a multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach. Target 17 of Goal Seventeen recognises this: 'Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.'

Whilst non-State actor efforts to support sustainable development are to be welcomed, States should ensure that any involvement does not have a negative impact on the realisation of the SDGs and human rights.

With regard to education, the increased involvement of non-State actors, particularly in provision, has become a real human rights concern. Numerous UN human rights mechanisms, including: the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights Council, and UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education have urged States to ensure that the right to education is not undermined by non-State actor involvement in education, through effective regulation of private education providers and investment in public education systems.

In the context of international cooperation and assistance, the UN has urged donor States to prioritise support for public education systems rather than private education providers, in order to ensure that the right to education is not undermined in recipient countries. 

After the MDGs ended there were 124 million out-of-schools children and adolescents. Given the current state of education worldwide: conflict affecting the education of an estimated 75 million children, health emergencies, such as the Ebola outbreak which forced 5 million out of school; increasing private sector involvement in education to turn a profit; the prevalence of child labour, child marriage, and gender-based violence, amongst other barriers, it is clear that for SDG Four to be achieved (along with the other sixteen goals) it will require significant effort, resources, and an evidence-based understanding of the factors that lead to marginalisation. A key question is how to reach the most marginalised first (these are the children currently out of school and the hardest to reach) – to fulfil the vision of ‘leaving no one behind’.

The right to education as applied to specific groups takes account of their specific circumstances and needs. That is why there are specialised human rights treaties applicable to marginalised groups, for example the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women addresses the specific challenges girls and women face; likewise the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. States must implement SDG Four in line with these treaties, commit to collecting disaggregated data, prioritise these groups when developing education policies, and formulate policies in a participatory, transparent, and inclusive manner.