Quality education for sustainable development

Education is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” citizens of the world.

Despite the significant progress made by many countries towards achieving this SDG, worryingly, sub-Saharan Africa is still lagging in terms of education inclusion.

When one considers that the region made the greatest progress in primary school enrolment among all developing regions of the world between 1990 and 2012, it is reasonable to believe that, with focus and concerted effort, sub-Saharan Africa can achieve this education goal by the 2030 deadline.

Notably, primary school enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 52% in 1990 to 78% in 2012. While this is a commendable achievement, more than a fifth of children who are between 6 and 11 years of age have dropped out of school and a third of the region’s youth of between 12 and 14 years of age are not learning. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS), which is the custodian of SDG 4, nearly 60% of people residing in the region between the age of 15 and 17 are not receiving schooling.

South Africa is among those countries in the region that still have substantial work to do in terms of meeting the education target. This is despite inclusive education being among the top priorities of the National Development Plan because of the important role that it can play in unlocking the potential of all South Africans and providing them with the opportunity to participate in growing the economy.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the dropout rate of South Africans who are between 7 and 18 years of age declined by a third from 2002 to 2014. However, there were still a staggering 530 000 South Africans of this age group who were not learning in 2014.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the situation when one considers that hundreds of thousands of children dropped out when schools throughout the country were closed for an extended period. Worryingly, about 15% of the 12,4-million learners enrolled in the public education system in 2019 could not be accounted for when they were opened. It is, therefore, understandable why experts were so concerned about the postponement of the start of the school year in 2021 due to the second wave of infections. This is yet another example of the complexity involved inbalancing lives with livelihoods in the fight against this pandemic. The impact that it has already had on the livelihoods of vulnerable young people is severe bearing in mind the importance of education.

UNICEF also points out that, despite the high level of access to education in South Africa, only half of the country’s youth have completed secondary schooling.

There is also a notable difference in education levels of children from the poorest households and those from affluent families. This again highlights the growing inequalities in the country since the first free and fair elections in 1994. For example, 85% of children from wealthy families have completed secondary school compared to only 32% from the poorest households.

The large difference in the level of education between the very rich and those living in poverty is a trend across sub-Saharan Africa that requires immediate attention. A sobering reality is that children from the poorest families in theregion are four times more likely to leave schools than those from affluent households. This means that they are condemned to a life of poverty with very little hope of ever improving their circumstances in life. There are also very high disparities between urban and rural areas, which still struggle with immense challenges in education, ranging from the poor quality of teaching though to substandard essential service delivery infrastructure. These have greatly contributed to the high dropout rate among learners in these outlying areas of the country.

Quality education for all

The importance of quality education for all citizens of the world cannot be over emphasised as it is a fundamental pillar of sustainable development.

One of 17 Global Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, SDG 4 comprises many targets.

The first aims to ensure that all youth complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education that leads to applicable and effective learning outcomes by 2030.

By this time, all youth must also have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education. This second target will adequately prepare children for primary education, the next stage of their learning journey.

The third target entails providing all people equal access to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, which includesuniversity tuition.

Fourth on the agenda is to significantly increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including those of a technical and vocational nature, to assist them in securingdecent jobs and becoming successful entrepreneurs.

The next target entails eliminating gender disparities in education. This is in addition to ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for vulnerable people.

The sixth target requires ensuring that all youth and a significant proportion of adults achieve literacy and numeracy. This is where quality adult basic education and training (ABET) or adult education and training (AET) has an enormous role to play in helping countries meet their SDG 4 goal.

This target also motivates further focus and investment into the various fields of adult learning to ensure that “all grownups have achieved relevant and recognised proficiency levels in functional literacy and numeracy skills by 2030. These skills must be equivalent to levels achieved at successful completion of basic education”.

Triple E Training is a leading accredited training provider in the country. It has a long and impressive track record of providing high quality AET for the unemployed and ABET for the employed. This includes teaching people how to read and write English and understand basic numbers skills. The company remains the first point of call for workplace training and community training projects for many companies and state actors. Its training interventions have also instilled a passion for learning among adults and helped them improve their daily lives, transcending an approach that is only geared at equipping people with basic literacy and basic numeracy skills to perform optimally in the workplace and to secure employment. This is one of the reasons why so many individuals also enrol directly with Triple E Training for adult literacy training and to learn maths.

All SDG goals ranked by experts based on a survey that they conducted

RankSustainable Development GoalAverage expert score
1SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities4.1569
2SDG 1: No Poverty3.7812
3SDG 5: Gender Equality3.5569
4SDG 16: Peace Justice & Strong Institutions3.0923
5SDG 7: Affordable & Clean Energy2.2784
6SDG 4: Quality Education2.0549
7SDG 6: Clean Water & Sanitation1.8721
8SDG 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth1.7282
9SDG 3: Good Health & Well Being1.6018
10SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals1.5608
11SDG 13: Climate Action1.3412
12SDG 9: Industry Innovation & Infrastructure1.1950
13SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and production1.0235
14SDG 2: Zero Hunger0.9412
15SDG 15: Life On Land0.7824
16SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities0.6000
17SDG 14: Life Below Water0.4206
[Source: New America]

Percentage of children and young people (a) in Grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics, 2011– 2014


Grade 3Grade 6 literacyGrade 9Grade 3Grade 6Grade 9
2011311517171225
201257393936112
201357684759272
201466774865353
[Source:] ANA, PIRLS, TIMMS 2011–2014, DBE

Percentage of children in the population who completed: a) Grade 7; b) Grade 9; c) Grade 12, by sex


Male Grade 7 (16-18 years)Female Grade 7 (16-18 years)Total Grade 7 (16-18 years)Male Grade 9 (19-21 years)Female Grade 9 (19-21 years)Total Grade 9 (19-21 years)Male Grade 12 (22-25 years)Female Grade 12 (22-25 years)Total Grade 12 (22-25 years)
201793,49795,286,992,489,647,45450,7
[Source:] Percentage of children in the population who completed: a) Grade 7; b) Grade 9; c) Grade 12, by sex, 2017

Percentage of children in the population who completed: a) Grade 7; b) Grade 9; c) Grade 12


2008200920102011201220132014201520162017
Grade 7 (16-18 years)90.390.992.292.893.494.294.494.494.195.2
Grade 9 (19-21 47.4years)82.383.485.784.885.885.486.786.786.786.7
Grade 12 (22-25 years)43.444.945.647.147.447.950.150.105050.1
[Source:] GHS 2008-2017, Stats SA

Percentage of youth aged 15–24 (and 15–34) years who were not currently attending school or who dropped out of school without completing Grade 12


Male 15-24 yearsFemale 15-24 yearsTotalMale 15-34 yearsFemale 15-34 yearsTotal
201339.538.138.863.362.562.9
20143938.238.664.163.363.7
201537.337.337.363.663.563.6
201637.43837.737.935.436.6
201737.136.236.738.433.636
[Source:] GHS 2013–2017, Stats SA, Knowledge and skills for all

Knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development

The seventh target involves ensuring that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills that they need to promote sustainable development.

As part of the focus on this SDG, educational facilities also need to be overhauled by 2030. Notably, they also need to be child, disability and gender sensitive, in addition to providing safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all. South Africa and many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa still have much work to do in this regard as poor learning environments continue to contribute to the high dropout rate, especially among rural women.

The goal also aims to substantially expand scholarships available to developing countries, especially those in Africa. This is intended to increase enrolment in higher education, including vocational training, in addition to information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes.

By 2030, countries must also have developed a steady pipeline of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries.

South Africa is among those countries that is facing a dire shortage of teachers that will become a crisis in the foreseeable future should the problem not receive due attention. At present, South Africa graduates an inadequate number of teachers to meet demand for education in the country, with local initial institutions only graduating 15 000 new teachers a year. This is well below the 25000 mark required to maintain an effective teacher-pupil ratio.

Notably, there are five more SDGs with a direct reference to education, further demonstrating the importance of learning in sustainable development.

SDG 3 target 3,7, which focuses on health and well-being, wants to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services. This includes for family planning, information and education, in addition to the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.

SDG 5 target 5.6, which concentrates on gender equality, strives to increase the number of countries with laws and regulations that guarantee women who are between 15 and 49 years of age have access to sexual and reproductive health care, information and education.

SDG 8 target 8,6 focuses on decent work and economic growth. It aims to substantially reduce the proportion of youth who are not employed, or not undergoing education or training.

By 2030, SDG 12 target 12.8 wants to ensure that all people have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and to lead lifestyles that are in harmony with nature. This goal encompasses everything related to responsible production and consumption, among the significant drivers of sustainable development.

SDG 13 target 13.3 encompasses everything relating to climate action. This includes improving education, awareness raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning.

Triple E Training remains committed to playing its part in ensuring that South African grownups are given a chance to improve their circumstances by completing their basic education and, in so doing, making a significant contribution towards sustainable development.

Changing Lives Together