What does Quality Education mean? Explaining Sustainable Development Goal No. 4

August 15, 2022

Quality Education is the UN’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal, and a phrase we use a lot in development work. But what does “quality” mean in this context?

Education is essential for ending poverty. Actually, let’s rephrase that: quality education is essential for ending poverty.

The word “quality” can carry a lot of meanings, and even baggage. Especially in the US, where school rankings can be a stressful topic for parents and students. But quality means something different — and very specific — in a global context. This is particularly true in the countries where education is most under threat. This is one of the reasons that the United Nations named Quality Education as its fourth Sustainable Development Goal. Here’s what we mean by “quality” in this context.

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Quality Education, explained

The UN describes the goal of Quality Education as ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and [promoting] lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Some of the targets the UN lists for SDG 4 include ensuring that children have:

  • Access to pre-primary education
  • A free primary and secondary (K-12) education
  • Options for affordable technical, vocational, and higher education options (such as college and university)

But it’s not enough for education to be accessible. It also has to add value to the lives of students. In Niger, for instance, enrollment has gone up for primary schools. But many Nigerien students complete their primary education and still lack basic yet vital skills like literacy. This leaves them unprepared for the job market, and gives them very little hope for breaking the cycle of poverty

This is why the word “quality” is important. Schools and grades are key elements of an education. But if we’re investing time and resources into educating the next generation, we need some standard that can be used to measure how effective that education is. Better yet, we need some standards to measure quality that can be applied everywhere from Argentina to Zimbabwe.

7-year-old Issoufou attends school in the village of Toungaïlli, Niger. (Photo: Ollivier Girard/Concern Worldwide)

Why quality education is important

Education is one of the best tools for ending poverty. But it’s only useful as a tool if education is approached in a meaningful way. In 2012, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: 

“Education is about more than literacy and numeracy – it is also about citizenry. Education must fully assume its central role in helping people to forge more just, peaceful and tolerant societies.” — Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General

Here are some of the ways the UN further defines “quality” education, and some of the ways we’re working towards this goal at Concern. 

Building relevant skills for financial success

At its root, extreme poverty is as a lack of assets and/or a lack of return on those assets. When we talk about assets, this includes skills, such as technical and vocational skills. The more relevant these skills are to the conditions a person lives in, the more likely they are to generate a return. And the more likely they are to help a person to lift themselves and their family out of poverty. Ideally, a quality education sets people up for lifelong learning, meaning that they can also adapt and develop new skills as times and trends change. We’ve seen this happen with the digital revolution and automation. We’ve also seen it happen with climate change and conflict. 

Since 2011, more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees have taken shelter in Lebanon. Many of those refugees were once middle-class residents of their home country. But the multiple impacts of Syria’s political and humanitarian crisis have left the vast majority of Syrians (at home and abroad) struggling to get by with few resources available to them. Those who eventually return to Syria may find the work they had before 2011 is no longer relevant in a country that must rebuild its infrastructure, economy, and communities.

Concern has worked with many Syrians in Lebanon (as well as members of the Lebanese host communities) as part of a network of income-generating projects that build skills useful both now and in the future, including dairy production, marketing techniques, and carpentry training.  

Eliminating discrimination in education

Education is a fundamental human right. However, there are over 260 million children around the world who are out of the classroom. Many of them are kept out due to discrimination. Over 130 million girls alone are excluded from education because of their gender. Quality education also means equality in education.

One of Concern’s recent initiatives to further gender equality in education was 2018’s “Let Our Girls Succeed.” The program took place in Kenya‘s Marsabit county, which had a low rate of students moving from primary to secondary school. Especially for girls. Retention rates were as low as 39.5% in some schools. Through a network of communities, we assisted 205 girls in 20 project schools to help make girls’ education part of the norm. As a result, 86% of those girls went on to secondary school or to a vocational training center. 

Sally Kamara (10yrs), second from right) in class 3 at Patiful Mayeppuh SDA Primary School, Sierra Leone.

Universal literacy and numeracy

According to UNESCO, if all adults acquired basic literacy and numeracy skills, an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. However, UNESCO also estimates that  there are 781 million illiterate adults (over the age of 15) around the globe. Many of these adults have completed several years of education, but due to different barriers remain unable to read or count. 

Many of these instances are due to language minorities in a region. For example, education in Niger (which consistently ranks last on the United Nations Development Program’s Education Index) is often limited due to language barriers in the classroom. While the national language of Niger is French, in a region like Tahoua, most children grow up speaking Hausa. Concern brought its “Mother Tongue” program into one school in Tahoua, where almost all of the 787 participating students in grades 2 and 3 read neither French nor Hausa. 

This method is in line with UNESCO’s recommendation for early teaching in the mother tongue. By beginning their education in their mother tongue and gradually transitioning to French, we saw illiteracy rates drop to 25-34% fro 96-100% over four years. We’ve had similar success with this program in Haiti and Kenya. 

Inclusive and safe schools

Environment is crucial to fostering a quality education. This means building and upgrading schools that are child-friendly, disability- and gender-accommodating, and provide safe, nonviolent, and inclusive spaces for kids to learn. Unfortunately, both physical and psychological aggression and gender biases are still prevalent in far too many schools. 

Concern is working to address school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) in education programs across Liberia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Somalia, and Malawi. We’re going one step further in Sierra Leone with the Safe Learning Model, a multi-million-dollar, five-year program funded by Irish Aid to develop a holistic approach to education and address SRGBV in the larger context of creating the sort of inclusive and safe school environments that support quality education. Ideally, we’ll be able to adapt this model for other countries as well.  

Refugee children at school in Lebanon

Concern Worldwide education officer, Nour Al Hajal, with a group of children attending a non-formal education program that focuses on early childhood education in northern Lebanon.

Qualified teachers

One of the UN’s other main goals around quality education is to increase the population of qualified teachers around the world, especially in low-income countries. While many teachers receive training, it’s not always in line with the best education models, or it’s not tailored to teaching in fragile contexts. 

For our education programming, we want to focus on educating the next generation, but we also care about educating the educators. Our work in Mother Tongue education means ensuring that teachers have bilingual training in both the national and mother tongues of their classrooms. We’ve worked with teachers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe on giving them the resources and training, especially in literacy pedagogy, to make sure success on both sides of the classroom desk. 

Quality education: Ready to learn more?

Concern’s work in primary education is grounded in the belief that all children have a right to learn. We believe that education is one of the best routes out of poverty and integrate it into both our development and emergency work to give children living in poverty more opportunities in life, and to support their overall well-being. Here are just a few of our recent successes in making education accessible to all: 

Quality Education