SDG4 and the Global Education Gap

Mapping the conversation on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for Education

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More than 260m children and young people are not going to school today – nor will they go to school any other day in the near future.

Today, 750m people over the age of 15 are unable to read and write, and two-thirds of them are women. And in over 20 countries more than half the population is illiterate.

In the next 6 years through to 2025, global socio-economic growth is depending on Pre-K through to post-secondary education delivering another 500m new learners to narrow the aforementioned gap.

Transforming education is the key to social and economic growth through a politically unstable fourth industrial revolution and a traditional education model not capable of scaling affordably to meet the needs of the world in 2025. We desperately need innovation and technology to support and amplify learners, teachers and mentors around the world.

The Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs), which comprises of 17 goals and over 169 targets, are at the most basic level, globally set targets and standards that UN member states are expected to use a benchmark when designing their individual national agendas and policies. When the world adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, uniting the development and environment agendas into a single framework, the SDG dedicated to education, SDG 4, was recognized as central to the achievement of all other SDGs.

SDG4, according to the UNDP, requires moving away from business as usual. It calls on countries to ensure quality education for all and equal learning opportunities throughout life, as well as effective and relevant learning and skills with flexible pathways for meaningful integration into the world of work and social and civic life.

Mapping the Global SDG4 Conversation

Our partners at Quid compile and analyze massive amounts of text-based data, in this case, the top news articles discussing SDG4. Each dot or node is an article from the Economist, Quartz, the New York Times, China Daily, South China Morning Post, Times of India, Guardian, Der Spiegel, the Australian, Rio Times etc, you get the picture.

We analysed and investigated each cluster of articles to discover the particular thematic being discussed. By understanding the comprehensive global narrative around SDG4, we can get a feel for what the world is thinking about the key issues and opportunities facing the global education gap.


The snapshots below provide a short summary of major global conversation thematics around SDG4.


Measurement & Assessment

SDG4 progress is closely monitored with the help of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), along with assessment partners worldwide. Basically, the SDG4 has four monitoring levels – global, thematic, regional and national. These levels are bound by indicators that will signify any change or continuity brought about by the process of achieving the targets of SDG4.

As discussed during the 2017 UN General Assembly, there will be 11 global indicators that will assess the progress of SDG4. These indicators are focused on monitoring the integration of learning, equity, skills and policy implementation in education. However, data gathering will still be dependent on each country as UNESCO points out that countries are “the starting point for all national and international monitoring.” Four general options have been discussed to achieve comparative analysis of education around the world.

Option 1: Every country submits data based on their own choice of assessment and definition of minimum proficiency levels. This means that the resulting data used to monitor SDG 4 will not be internationally comparable.

Option 2: Every country submits data based on their own choice of assessment but the SDG 4 reporting also includes information on the quality of the data and shows how the results compare to a broad learning scale. With this conceptual information, it is possible to make some comparisons across countries.

Option 3: The stakeholders work together to link common items across different assessments. This option provides more rigor than the previous options and makes it possible to develop better cross-linkages to a common reporting scale than option 2.

Option 4: Build a critical mass of comparable data either by encouraging more countries to join existing regional or international assessments or by developing a new assessment for countries that do not have their own.


Diversity & Inclusion

The growth in participation in education over the last 50 years is primarily driven by the inclusion of girls in school. This is fantastic news in general but diversity and inclusion are still major issues around the world. Gender-based violence, poor inclusion and poverty issues are traced to the failure of addressing gender norms, leading to imbalanced educational and employment opportunities, particularly for women and disadvantaged groups.

Much of the global commentary around the root cause of diversity and inclusion challenges are attributed to social issues such as poverty, crime and disorder in communities. Conversations included those reflecting on the U.S. Census Bureau insights that 80% of single-parent families with children under the age of 18 are led by single mothers and research by the World Bank concluding that 90% of a mother’s salary in many developing economies go to buying her family’s daily necessities. These are but a few of the conversations around gender diversity and the need for an equitable platform in both education and employment.


Development Finance & Aid

One of the development goals set about by the United Nations Millennium Declaration was “to achieve universal primary education.” Since 2000, the number of out-of-school primary-age children has decreased by half, indicating significant progress in that millennium development goal.

Stephen Twigg, Chair of the International Development Committee, puts it bluntly: “Of course, a child attending school does not on its own equate to learning, and as such the quality of education is just as important as access to places in schools.” Lack of motivated and skilled teachers and poor maintenance of educational facilities are the result of inadequate government funding according to many of the conversations.

Even with the progress made since 2000, the number of out-of-school youth is still incredibly high, especially in the poorest countries.


Unions & Privatisation

As governments in developing countries lack the funding and capabilities to expand education, they have been increasingly turning to the private sector. Privatization and commercialization of education are considered by some as threats to the achievement of SDG4.

Education International (EI) has launched a global response project that aims to mobilize governments to increase educational funding to at least 6% GDP. The inability of governments to continue or increase funding for public education poses a great challenge to SDG4 as learning in many markets becomes more costly and inaccessible to students. Public-Private Partnerships and Cooperation are likely a strong driver towards the achievement of SDG4 with further role clarity and discussion on how best to bring the strengths of each of these partners to bear in each market.


Teacher Shortages & Professional Development

Addressing the shortage of qualified teachers is still an ongoing global crisis. If we are to achieve the targets of the SDG4 by the year 2030, UNESCO suggests that a staggering total of 69 million additional teachers are required. It’s a massive number that has steadily increased due to population growth around the world, combined with generally low pay and compensation for teachers.

According to UK Labour MP Matthew Pennycook, four out of 10 London school teachers have quit the professions within five years of qualifying. But this is just a small sample size as the UIS also reports that, “there are about 263 million children without a primary or secondary school to attend.” A large part of this crisis is felt in sub-Saharan Africa where teachers are “paid below the poverty line”, opting many to pursue another field of work where there is higher job security.

Furthermore, the lack of financial aid and efforts by the government to provide teachers with strategic professional development have been a challenge in catering quality education to students. Teachers are always expected to deliver excellent learning outcomes.


Early Childhood Development

Based on the belief that ‘prevention is better than cure’, the UN Children’s Fund has urged countries to pay more importance to pre-primary education, paid parental leave, and paid breastfeeding breaks. Early childhood development is one of the most significant stages of a person’s growth as it can be a great influential factor in her or him becoming an active and engaged learner in the future.

Specifically, the UNICEF’s report on these factors has concluded that “25 percent of all children between the ages of 2 and 4 years old in 64 countries do not take part in activities such as playing, reading or singing, all of which are critical for early brain development”. Children deprived of these fundamental activities will put them at a disadvantage in terms of brain growth and stimulation. Aside from that, not all countries enforce policies of paid breastfeeding breaks and paid parental leaves, forcing them to pay little attention to their child’s early development.

UNICEF has always recommended mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies for 6 months as breastfeeding has health and growth benefits for children. There are numerous social and environmental factors that discourage mothers from breastfeeding, and UNICEF argues this should fall on the government to enforce policies and offer seminars to educate parents on the important factors of early childhood development.



While teachers are deemed to be the primary source for the learning of their students, the duties and obligations should not entirely fall on their shoulders according to UNESCO. Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, says, “Education is a shared responsibility between us all – governments, schools, teachers, parents and private actors. Accountability for these responsibilities defines the way teachers teach, students learn, and governments act. It must be designed with care and with the principles of equity, inclusion and quality in mind.”

Putting the entire blame on teachers for students’ poor academic performances and failure to attend classes on a regular basis is misguided and just wrong. Government and school administrators need to work hand in hand with teachers to develop effective solutions to the obstacles that hinder students from achieving the intended learning outcomes.

Accountability, combined with transparency and a sense of urgency, should be observed by every person who has the power to influence a child’s educational and learning.

Regional Focus

The snapshots below highlight the clusters and thematics that surrounded the conversation in each region of the world.



As one of the most populated countries in the world, more pressure is placed on India to deliver on its mission to carry out the goals of SDG4. According to UN India, the government has responded by producing significant progress in universalizing primary education, evidenced by an increase in enrolment and completion rates of girls in both primary and elementary school.

“The net enrolment ratio in primary education for boys and girls was at 100%, while at the national level, the youth literacy rate was 94% for males and 92% for females. The new national Education Policy and Sustainable Development Goal 4 share the goals of universal quality education and lifelong learning. The flagship government scheme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, is aimed at achieving universal quality education for all Indians, and is complemented in this effort by targeted schemes on nutritional support, higher education, and teacher training.”

Furthermore, the Indian government has also committed to strengthening the national youth volunteer infrastructure of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. They have developed action plans for enforcing more active policies on environment and disaster risk reduction, gender justice and equality, social entrepreneurship and, social inclusion.



Since the implementation of the SDGs, universities across the US have been encouraged to collaborate with several chapters of the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA) to educate the youth about the importance of achieving the development goals. UNA-USA says that the purpose of these teach-ins is to, “cultivate support for the UN while giving students the tools and knowledge to support, advocate, and spread awareness.”

Just last year, UNA-USA held a session at the UN Department of Public Information NGO Conference to emphasize the significance of increasing the youth’s awareness on their roles and responsibilities in the achievement of the SDGs. UNA-USA also reports that they have, “created a space for non-profit leaders to discuss their initiatives and highlighted the work of three young people who have utilized unique platforms to accomplish the SDGs: technology, private sector enterprise, and art and design.”






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