By Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education
When education policymakers overlook the importance of adult learning, it doesn’t just let down adults who could benefit from a greater commitment to their needs. It also fails to exploit a key argument for education’s central place in the wider development agenda. Both omissions were on show last month at the global meeting on post-2015 education aims in Dakar, Senegal.
Anyone looking at the wording of the proposed post-2015 education goal agreed at the Dakar meeting would think that the learning needs of adults were well recognized: “Equitable quality lifelong education and learning for all” covers a commitment to lifelong learning, and for everyone. However, the document summarizing the consultation event failed to mention the learning needs of adults, despite the insistence by participants that all phases of education– from early years to adult life – are intimately connected.
At the same meeting it was lamented that education had been overlooked at the Bali High-Level Panel meeting on the broader post-2015 development agenda in March. But no one was putting two and two together.
However effectively educators resolve internal debates about priorities among themselves, they are failing to persuade the rest of the development community of the key role education plays in the wider development process. Yet it is clear that progress on HIV/AIDS, clean water and sanitation, democratic participation, maternal deaths and the survival of small children all involve adults understanding the issues and changing behaviour.
As well as being a powerful catalyst in the achievement of other goals, adult learning is a fundamental human right. Despite the Education for All process, 775 million adults still lack literacy skills, two in three of whom are women – a reduction of just 12% since 1999, whereas the EFA target was a 50% reduction. And since we know that children do better in school when their mothers read and write, ignoring adult literacy has an impact on young people too.
It was made clear at Dakar that successor targets to the Education for All goals will be adopted at the World Education Conference in South Korea in spring 2015. One of them should be to secure universal literacy by 2030, with the number of adults without literacy halved in every country by 2020, and halved again five years later, with an immediate priority given to eradicating the gender gap in access to literacy.
The International Council for Adult Education also believes that with 9 in 10 adults in sub-Saharan Africa and India working outside the waged economy, targets for skills training for workers in subsistence economies should be developed.
Out of the six Education for All goals established in 2000, adult learning has received the least attention. At the heart of this failure was the difficulty in measuring. We need regular household surveys backed by disaggregated data, so that the needs of poor and underrepresented groups can be clearly identified. There is a key role for civil society in using data generated to identify groups missing out on development, and to advocate with and for them.
So far the process leading to new global development goals is profoundly opaque. There are lots of places to say what you think, but no clarity at all about how agendas are to be decided. Advocacy for impoverished organisations defending the interests of the global poor deserve better. We need transparent processes to know when and where to make a fuss. After Dakar, and despite the generous and open nature of its debates, I am no clearer about how best we should go about defending adult learners’ interests.
Alan Tuckett is president of the International Council for Adult Education and a visiting professor at the universities of Nottingham and Leicester.