Towards a lifelong learning target for 2015

By Alan Tuckett
ICAE President

We are confronted by multiple crises – arising from fiscal restructuring, climate change, accelerating inequality, food, energy and water shortages.  Meanwhile, large parts of the globe are subject to continuing insecurity and conflict. Yet we live in a world of rising life expectancy, where many enjoy standards of living unimaginable to their parents and grandparents.  Lifelong learning policies and practice are inevitably involved in responses to all of these issues, for as the fifth UNESCO international conference on the education of adults (CONFINTEA V) in Hamburg made clear, whilst adult learning is a good in itself, it is also a fundamental pre-requisite for the achievement of a range of other social policy goals. Few if any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can be fully achieved without  investment in adult learning, yet the invisibility of an explicit focus on this catalytic function of adult learning has been a major weakness in securing its optimal contribution to development in industrialised and developing countries alike.

This paper, which builds on a short presentation made to a UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning think tank on future priorities for lifelong learning, reviews the impact of the MDG and EFA targets for adult learning and education, makes the case for adopting a lifelong learning target, and considers key features affecting adult learners that should be included in it, including how it can contribute effectively to sustainable development.
Targets can be a mixed blessing.  At their best they establish a clear and shared sense of direction, and identify the scale of action needed to secure a desired outcome. At their worst they can become the inflexible focus of policy and action, even when powerful evidence of the need for modification becomes available.  You can, as one British politician put it, ‘hit the target and miss the point’.  You can, though, have too much of a good thing.  The decade of major UN conferences – from the Earth Summit in Rio, to the population conference in Cairo; from the women’s conference in Beijing to CONFINTEA in Hamburg governments signed up to a plethora of goals – too many, perhaps, for them all to be achieved in the anticipated timescales given the available resources.

Nevertheless once targets have been adopted they do shape the policy context, and for educators and policy makers working in adult learning and education, – at least in developing countries- the adoption in 2000 of Education for All targets in Dakar, and of wider Millennium Development Goals in New York has had a major impact, as government and external funders have focused their policy priorities on the headline commitments in the MDG targets.  As Ban-Ki Moon put it, in the foreword to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2011, the goals ‘have raised awareness and shaped a broad vision that remains the overarching framework for the development activities of the United Nations.’(UN,2011,3).  But whilst the Secretary General highlights the breadth of the vision, in practice the targets have acted to narrow the focus of development – often to the detriment of opportunities for adults to learn.

At a recent meeting, called by the UNESCO National Commission in the UK, Anthony Smith of the UK Department for International Development argued that for all their limitations the Millennium Development Goals had been more effective than any earlier Initiatives in securing coherent international co-operation and focus on major priorities in development. Like many other commentators he pointed to improvements in access to clean water, to schooling, and to reductions in the number of deaths of women in childbirth.  And there are, undoubtedly positive educational developments, particularly in primary school participation.  As the MDG report for 2011 suggests, ‘some of the poorest countries have made the greatest strides in education’ – with Burundi, Madagascar, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Togo and the United Republic of Tanzania achieving or nearing the goal of universal participation, and sub-Saharan Africa achieving 18 percentage point increases in primary school participation in the decade 1999-2009.

Yet the concentration of international and multi-lateral development funding on the eight millennium development goals has come at a price for those Education for All targets which are not included in the MDGs.
The 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report put the matter bluntly:

‘The world is not on track to achieve the Education for All targets set for 2015. Although there has been progress in many areas, the overarching message to emerge from the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report is that most of the goals will be missed by a wide margin. Countries affected by armed conflict face particularly daunting challenges. Governments will have to demonstrate a far greater sense of urgency, resolve and common purpose to bring the targets within reach.’ (UNESCO, 2011,15).

The picture painted by the report is bleak.  Whilst there has been real progress towards the goal of universal primary education (EFA target 2), with a reduction of 39 million in the number of children out of school, there are still 67 million children unreached by the flagship MDG and EFA goal, and the rate of progress in securing participation has slowed since 2004.  Of course, participation is only the beginning, and the report highlights high levels of drop out, and in addition points to the poor quality of much provision.

On early childhood care and education there has been some progress, but as the 2008 GMR mid-term evaluation of progress towards the EFA target noted ‘ comprehensive care and education of children below age 3 remains a neglected area.’(UNESCO,2008,6)  The mid-term review was sharper on the third EFA goal:

The learning needs of young people and adults remain woefully undocumented.  This goal has been particularly neglected, in part because of the difficulty of defining and monitoring it.  Many young people and adults acquire skills through informal means, or through a great variety of non-formal literacy, equivalency, life-skills and livelihood programmes. (UNESCO,2008,6).

If the first of the three EFA goals affecting young people and adults has been neglected, so, too, has adult literacy.  The 2011 GMR calls it ‘Adult literacy, a forgotten goal’:

The world is far off track for the target of halving adult literacy by 2015.  In some regions including sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, the number of illiterates has risen since the early 1990s.  Programmes offering second chance education to adults remain under-resourced and fragmented. (UNESCO, 2011,24).

To be fair, the report does highlight the major strides taken by China which reduced illiteracy by 19 million in eight years, and by Latin American and Caribbean countries.  There has, too, been renewed energy among the E9 countries (those with the largest populations without literacy skills).  In India for example, the national literacy campaign, Saakshar Bharat, backed by the right to learn enshrined in law has extremely stretching targets for women’s literacy – although for those targets to be achieved in the villages and cities civil society organisations have an essential role to play to complement state action.  By contrast the African Union’s eight goals for its Education Decade do not include Adult Literacy.  Despite positive achievements in some countries in the three years between the mid-term review and the 2011 report, the total numbers of adults without literacy rose from 774 million to 797 million people.

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