When the International Day of Education, observed on 24 January, was proclaimed in 2018, many questioned why it had taken so long for such a defining part of our lives to find a place on the United Nations calendar. The delay can be seen as a metaphor for education itself, given that the positive outcomes of education are not immediately apparent. Instead, the benefits become discernible over a generation and sometimes longer; they are seen in the development of countries, the well-being of people and a society’s capacity for innovation.

Taking a step back, there has been nothing short of a revolution in education since the founding of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than 70 years ago. Never have there been so many children and youth in school and university. For many newly independent countries, education has continued to be the backbone of nation-building. Today, nothing is valued more by families and communities in the most difficult circumstances than access to education, which serves as a way out of poverty and a stepping stone to opportunity, to a more dignified and better life.

This is because education equals development, empowerment and transformation for individuals and for societies. We have irrefutable evidence that education is key to reducing poverty; addressing infant and maternal mortality; eliminating early marriage; improving health, income and economic growth; and a wide spectrum of other essential impacts. While the evidence may be uncontested, the reality is that too many people are left behind in education, leading to deeper inequalities and to exclusion within and between countries. In fact, this problem is stalling progress towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

With current projections, 1 in 6 children between the ages of 6 and 17 will still be out of school in 2030. Barely 6 in 10 young people will be completing secondary education, a level that is essential for managing in today’s complex, fast-changing world.1 The challenge is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where the school-age population is growing faster than elsewhere in the world.2 And everywhere, alongside issues of access, education is failing too many children and youth: 6 out of 10 are not learning the basics in the classroom even after several years in school.3

Leaving no one behind is not a numbers game, but one that calls for re-evaluating and reimagining what education means and provides.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, on quality education, sets the bar high because no society can thrive in the era of globalization and technological disruption when education is cut off at the end of primary or secondary school. We need solid higher education and vocational training to nurture talents and design sustainable solutions; pathways to learn throughout life in a diversity of settings; and education systems that work for all at all levels, regardless of background and circumstance.

Leaving no one behind is not a numbers game, but one that calls for re-evaluating and reimagining what education means and provides. This year’s International Day celebrates precisely how learning can empower people, foster peace, build shared prosperity and protect a fragile planet. It is a chance to remember that education is humanity’s greatest renewable resource, a fundamental right, a public good and an enabler of the entire 2030 Agenda. If we are to make a difference in the next decade, every word in SDG 4—inclusion, equity, quality and lifelong learning—must carry its weight in practice and not just symbolically.

Our first imperative is inclusion. Building a culture of inclusion in law and in practice represents a veritable commitment to respecting every learner, valuing diversity as enrichment and making learning environments safe from violence. It involves fighting prejudice and discrimination, which prevails globally and entrenches marginalization, whether it be based on disability, age, gender, sexual identity, language, race or ethnicity. The inclusion imperative takes on more urgency in the context of rising migration and forced displacement: it is estimated that 3.7 million school-age refugees are missing out on their right to education, with enrolment in secondary standing at only 24 per cent.4

We must act on the legislative front, as only one in five countries has legislation in place guaranteeing 12 years of free and compulsory education5—one of the SDG 4 targets for all girls and boys. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works with governments to put in place adequate legislative frameworks aligned with international normative instruments to enshrine the right to education and to fight all forms of discrimination. We must support more inclusive planning and policy frameworks, using disaggregated data to create a more accurate picture of who is missing out and why.

Students take an exam outside at Mpanda Girls' Secondary School, Mpanda District, Katavi Region, Tanzania. August 2019. GPE/Kelley Lynch (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Equity is intrinsically linked to inclusion, to breaking the circle of inequalities whereby the richest 20 per cent are nine times more likely than the poorest 20 per cent to complete upper secondary education in low-income countries.

The second imperative is quality. If learning is to be transformative, we have to invest in those who are on the frontlines of learning every day—teachers. We will need 69 million qualified teachers to universalize primary and secondary education by 2030. Their profession must be valued and supported through professional training, adequate remuneration, decent working conditions and social recognition. Teachers need curricula geared to the realities and challenges of our times, from imparting digital literacy to promoting education for sustainable development. They need the skills to foster critical thinking and to challenge gender norms and stereotypes through transformative pedagogies and learner-centred approaches. Teachers need exposure to findings from the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience to enrich their practice.

At UNESCO, we are leading work to equip teachers with guidance on how to prevent violent extremism, counter antisemitism and promote values of global citizenship and peace through education. We train teachers on building resilience to climate change, on encouraging girls’ participation in STEM subjects, on fostering responsibility for our planet and promoting a culture of peace and sustainability.

The third pillar of SDG 4 is lifelong learning. In a world characterized by increasing mobility, education systems must facilitate learning at all ages, whether it is through second-chance opportunities, adult literacy programmes or dismantling barriers to tertiary education. Last November, UNESCO’s member States adopted the Global Convention for the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, a landmark instrument that will facilitate the mobility of students. At the same time, we are piloting an initiative called the Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants. By recognizing the prior learning and skills of those forced to leave everything behind, we are facilitating social cohesion and integration. 

To move on all these fronts, we need a quantum increase in financing. Last November at UNESCO, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Professor Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, called on all countries to step up and meet domestic and donor financing benchmarks on education. This is fundamentally about prioritizing—about making the wisest choices for the medium- and long-term future.

As the United Nations agency entrusted with the coordination of SDG 4, our message is clear: we will not achieve the future we want without a surge in political commitment to ensure that every child, youth and adult has access to quality education, trained teachers and safe learning environments. This is the societal compact we must clinch in the next decade to make education a force for people, prosperity, planet and peace. 



1. UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring Report Team, “Meeting commitments: are countries on track to achieve SDG4? ”, Programme and meeting document (Montreal, Quebec, 2019), 3-4. Available at https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000369009?posInSet=1&queryId=478bcf0c-97fa-4121-b627-358207c503a3

2.  Ibid., 3.

3.  Ibid., 5. See also United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “More than half of children and adolescents are not learning worldwide”, Fact Sheet No. 46 (Paris and Montreal, 2017). Available at http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs46-more-than-half-children-not-learning-en-2017.pdf.

4.  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Stepping up: refugee education in crisis”, Report (Geneva, 2019), 4, 6, 11, 24. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/steppingup/wp-content/uploads/sites/76/2019/09/Education-Report-2019-Final-web-9.pdf.

5.  UNESCO, “What you need to know about the right to education”, 10 October 2018. Available at https://en.unesco.org/news/what-you-need-know-about-right-education.

22 January 2020

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