Education, learning and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Over the last three years, the United Nations has been working to establish a global sustainable development agenda to succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which expire in 2015. This important agenda, comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, is due to be adopted at the UN summit in September in New York.

As with the MDGs, education is also a fundamental priority under the SDGs, aiming to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

This is the fourth SDG, and it has ten targets that together represent an ambitious and universal agenda to develop better skills for better lives. Five of the ten targets are concerned with improving the quality of education for individual children, young people and adults, and to give them better and more relevant knowledge and skills. This emphasis on learning outcomes is a timely step forward from the MDGs, which focused on ensuring access to, participation in and completion of primary education, and on gender equality in primary, secondary and tertiary education. It also reflects the knowledge that enrolment and participation in early childhood development programmes, formal schooling or adult education are the means to attain results and improved learning outcomes at every stage, from school readiness among young children through achieving literacy and numeracy at primary school to equipping young adults with knowledge and skills for decent work and global citizenship.

However, being at school is not enough. Data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s most widely used global metric to measure the quality of learning outcomes, as well as its adult version, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), underlines this fact, with many countries having all their children in school but only a proportion of these achieving adequate levels of proficiency by the end of lower secondary education. As all the evidence shows, this augurs badly for economic, social and sustainable development. That is why the aim of achieving universal basic skills is at the heart of the SDG education agenda. The data gathered and used for global monitoring of the education SDG must emphasise this shift from the access-oriented MDGs towards the new focus on learning outcomes and skills.

PISA is a triennial internationally-comparable assessment of 15-year-olds in school, with the next round due to be published in December 2016. It measures student performance not only in reading, mathematics and science, but also some of the broader social and emotional competencies that are essential for a successful life. It also collects contextual data about such factors as family background through questionnaires. A random sample of at least 5,000 students is tested in each country. Since its launch in 1997, PISA has become a global reference for education policy makers, with more than 70 countries taking part, including 44 emerging and developing countries, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and Tunisia. More recently, the PISA for Development (PISA-D) initiative has been designed by the OECD and its partners to enable greater PISA participation by low-income and middle-income countries.

The SDGs are concerned with knowledge, skills and lifelong learning for all, not just school attendance. To help monitor this need, the Survey of Adult Skills provides a valuable model. This international survey, the results of which were first released in 2013, covers 33 countries as part of PIAAC, and measures the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to obtain decent work, participate in society, and for economies to prosper.

The world now faces a challenge to define education indicators covering access, equity and quality for all levels of education that can be measured and tracked over time and on a global scale. This is a tall order, and several international organisations such as UNESCO and its Institute of Statistics (UIS), UNICEF, the World Bank and the OECD, have been helping the World Education Forum and the UN Statistics Commission to develop them. These proposed indicators include harnessing existing international large-scale assessments, such as the OECD’s PISA and PIAAC, to track progress.

In the months ahead the member states of the UN and UNESCO will be meeting to decide on the SDG education indicators for global monitoring. The OECD supports these discussions and shares the member states’ commitment to a new and universal education agenda with its focus on learning outcomes and skills for all. 


See and

Read more on PISA for Development at

OECD (2015), Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain, OECD Publishing.

UN (2015), “Draft outcome document of the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda”.

UNESCO (2015), “Education 2030: Towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all”,

©OECD Observer No 303, September 2015



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