What do we mean by “quality education”?

November 1, 2019

The phrase “quality education” is used frequently in development contexts. It’s also the focus of the UN’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal. But what does “quality” mean in this context? It can seem ambiguous, but there are some real parameters to define it.

Here at Concern, education is an integral element for all of our work. This includes our formal education programs, which seek to improve the lives of children living in extreme poverty in a sustainable way. Our focus with education is to increase access to education, improve child well-being through safe and encouraging learning environments, and provide quality education. 

But what exactly is quality education? Especially in the United States, where school rankings can be a fraught process, the word “quality” can mean many things to many people. Let’s take a step back to talk about quality in context. 

Quality education

The United Nations’ fourth Sustainable Development Goal is centered on Quality Education. The UN expands on this goal, noting that it is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” 

Using “quality” as a qualifier is important here. For the UN, some of the targets for SDG 4 include ensuring that children have access to pre-primary education, free primary and secondary education, and options for affordable technical, vocational, and higher education options, including college.  

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

This is what we mean by “quality” education. While the facilities and grades are important, the key goal here is to ensure that, if we’re investing time and resources into teaching the next generations, there is some standard from Argentina to Zimbabwe that can be used to measure how effective that education is. 

Why quality education matters

The ways that education affects poverty — and can help to end it — are well documented. 

But the ways education can help to end extreme poverty are only possible if education is approached in a meaningful way. 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.” 

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. 

“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

Building relevant skills for financial success

Extreme poverty is generally defined as a lack of assets or a lack of return on those assets. One of these assets are skills, including technical and vocational skills. The more relevant these skills are in the 21st Century, the more likely they are to generate a return. This not only means understanding how relevant skills have changed against the digital revolution and automation, but also against climate change, shifting societal norms, and political realities. 

In Lebanon, more than 1 million Syrians have taken refuge since 2011. Many of these refugees were once middle-class families in their home country, but are now struggling to get by with very little in their host community. Those who return to Syria some day may find that the trades they practiced before 2011 are no longer relevant in a country that needs to rebuild its infrastructure, economy, and communities. Concern has worked with many of these Syrian refugees in Lebanon 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 263 million children and youth around the world who are kept out of the classroom. Many of them are excluded due to discrimination, including over 130 million girls excluded based on gender. Quality education means equality in education, at all levels, for all vulnerable populations. 

In an effort to build gender equality in education systems around the world, one of Concern’s most recent initiatives was 2018’s “Let Our Girls Succeed” in Marsabit, Kenya. This county had a low retention rate from primary to secondary school, especially for girls, with rates as low as 39.5%. Through a network of communities, we assisted 205 girls in 20 project schools to help make girls’ education part of the norm. 86% of those girls went on to secondary school or to a vocational training center. 

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 Programme’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 no French or 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-sensitive, and provide safe, nonviolent, and inclusive spaces for kids to learn — and to enjoy being kids. 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 once we’ve completed this five-year program.  

Qualified teachers

One of the UN’s other main goals around education is to increase the population of qualified teachers, especially in the least developed countries and small island states, around the world. 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. 

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.

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 extremely poor children more opportunities in life, and to support their overall well-being. Sign up below to get more periodic updates on our work in 24 countries around the world.