By Alan Tuckett, President of the International Council for Adult Education and Professor of Education, University of Wolverhampton
The World Education Forum in Incheon is now behind us, and the Addis Ababa event on financing the Sustainable Development Goals ahead. This blog celebrates the vision for adult education that was championed at Incheon, but warns that it will never be achieved without dramatic change at the Financing for Development Conference coming up at Addis.
The 2015 Global Monitoring Report has some key lessons for us. It is at once an impressive and depressing read – at least for adult educators. It points to a dramatic failure to make significant progress on adult literacy since 2000.
The Report offers four major reasons for a lack of progress in adult literacy – the lack of political leaders who prioritize the value of adult literacy and the resultant failure to finance the work; weak capacity where there have been campaigns (noting Nepal as an exception); the widespread failure to use mother tongue for non-dominant languages, and the importance of a literate context, in which learners can practise, sustain and improve their literacy skills in everyday life. I would add to the GMR’s list: the failure to extend gender equality to educational opportunities for adults: women account for 64% of the 781 million adults governments report as being without literacy, (the real total is perhaps half as big again), and this is a proportion that has not changed since 1990.
While the Report does present the available facts on progress towards the literacy goal, and adult skills within goal 3 are at least discussed in this GMR as opposed to some of its previous reports, it highlights that there is a lack of comparable data in most low and middle income countries enabling it to tell a proper story. As a result, we know little about the learning needs of adults working outside the waged and taxed economy and how best to address those needs. We know little, too, about the educational interventions that are most effective in enabling citizens to be informed and participative.
What we do know is what is brought out in the GMR, notably that ‘contemporary society requires citizens with skills for civic engagement, living a healthy life and sustainable development’. The Report clearly shows that we need better measures of formal, non-formal and informal lifelong learning, especially for adults, and the ability to disaggregate and analyse survey data to identify who isn’t participating, and what can be done about it.
To be fair, education ministers and policy makers at Incheon were alive to the lack of progress and monitoring restraints. The fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on education, which was endorsed at the World Education Forum, encompasses a holistic view, recognising the inter-connections of learning across the life span – just like the EFA vision did in 2000. The new target recognises that literacy skills are contextual. And there is widespread agreement that a simpler, easily administered literacy assessment instrument needs development. I was encouraged by the importance given to non-formal and family literacy for children and adults alike, as a complement to the more formal system, and the role lifelong learning more widely can give in stimulating and sustaining a literate environment. Little of this can be achieved without the active engagement of civil society, or without enough resources.
However, just as the EFA vision was never backed by sufficient finance, we face exactly the same risk now. All the work that produced the international consensus on the SDG education targets risks being undermined by the narrow priorities for funding proposed in the zero draft of the Addis Financing for Development conference. The current proposals stop with secondary schooling, investment in STEM, and funding scholarships. Once again adult learning and education are invisible.
We have little hope of achieving the wider SDG agenda without adults understanding, adapting and helping to shape change – whether this be to reduce maternal mortality, to improve nutrition, to promote safe sex, or active citizenship, or to realise the health benefits of clean water and improved sanitation.
Adult learning, then, is not a luxury item to be added to the agenda in times of plenty, it is an integral part of the sustainable development goals. Real progress on the SDGs is impossible if adults are left out of the equation. But while educators understand this, how do we convince the financial planners?