Sustainable Development Goal #4: Ensure Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Promote Lifelong Learning Opportunities for All

Universal Public Education Enriches All of Us

importance of investment in education has been accepted as a universal public good for decades. In 1871, Ontario introduced free and compulsory education, and most other provinces quickly followed suit.

The United States started decades earlier. Massachusetts was first to introduce compulsory education in 1852.

The United Nations has taken this on as a universal goal – understanding its worldwide benefits. In our increasingly complex world, everyone needs a basic educational framework to understand the world.

Education Faces Barriers – Economic and Social

The goal of universal education takes on many dimensions. And faces many barriers.

Universal education costs a lot. We can see that even here in Canada and the United States. But the lack of universal education exacts an even higher price.

Beyond the price tag, truly universal education faces numerous barriers, including:

  • cultural and familial attitudes towards women
  • discrimination against political and cultural minorities, and
  • many other pre-existing discrepancies

And then, there is the range of resources a society can or will direct toward providing and promoting an effective education system for its entire population.

And the problem with providing effective and meaningful education is not limited to countries we consider to be the “third world.”

Enough said, let’s look at some of the problems limiting society’s ability to provide quality education to all our citizens.

And let’s start with the largest “minority” imaginable – girls.

Girls Don’t Get the Opportunities They Deserve

In many countries around the world, the rate of school participation, based on gender is troubling. According to UNICEF, barely half the countries of the world (49%) have achieved gender parity, even in primary education. That number drops to 42% for lower secondary education and 24% in upper secondary education.

Taliban Announcement: Frustrating, but not surprising. And definitely not alone

Just recently, on March 23, to be exact, the Taliban administration in Afghanistan backtracked on a promise to offer educational opportunities to girls past the primary school level. While it may not be surprising, it is disappointing. And as we can see, they are not alone.

In this Joint Statement on the Recent Taliban Decision to Deny Afghan Girls the Right to an Education, the Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the High Representative of the European Union joined together to condemn this decision.

Factors contributing to lower participation by girls

A quick search on Google for “barriers to girls in secondary education” listed some excellent articles detailing the barriers girls face. These include:

  • Cost – Poverty and prioritization
  • Child marriage, trafficking and pregnancy
  • Gender-based violence
  • Gender norms and expectations
  • Menstruation (Period shame)
  • Dealing with societal conflict and crisis

Let’s have a quick look at each of these in turn.

Cost – Poverty and prioritization

According to the World Bank, “Poverty is one of the most important factors for determining whether a girl can access and complete her education.” The lack of financial resources has a cascading effect that we can see in many of the other factors I have listed.

Child marriage, trafficking, and pregnancy

Girls cannot hope to achieve higher education if they are married off and begin having children of their own once they reach puberty. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four girls under 18 are married, and 30% of that population in South Asia are married.

Poverty and gender norms both play a role.

Gender-based violence

Rape is not a problem peculiar to the third world or to school-aged girls. But to put it into perspective, the World Bank cites estimates “that approximately 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to or at school every year”.

Gender norms and expectations

Perhaps other than economic conditions (poverty), this is the other significant factor – it encapsulates all the others. After all, what can you expect when your community assumes that girls should:

  • must get married as soon as they reach puberty
  • should help around the house doing more of the household chores, and
  • are “less important” than their brothers

Menstruation (Period shame)

This is very possibly the most potent manifestation of gender norms and expectations. As a cis male, I cannot fully appreciate its impact. It must be difficult, even impossible, to go to school during your period when:

  • religious and social leaders cite sacred text
  • peers and neighbours heap shame on young women, and
  • family finances limit the availability of menstrual products

Dealing with conflict and crisis

The same World Bank study pointed out that” (i)n FCV countries, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, and at the secondary level, are 90% more likely to be out of secondary school than those in non-FCV contexts. FCV countries are those affected by fragility, conflict, and violence.

Better Educational Opportunities for Girls Improve Things for Everyone

As UNICEF succinctly points out – When we invest in girls’ full (primary and secondary) education:

  • The lifetime earnings of girls dramatically increase
  • National growth rates rise
  • Child marriage rates decline
  • Child mortality rates fall
  • Maternal mortality rates fall
  • Child stunting drops

Poor Quality Education Affects More Than “Just” Girls

Beyond the problems experienced by girls in education, problems exist in other contexts. Many children attend school but do not attain even minimal literary or mathematical proficiency levels.

This is blamed mainly on the quality of training for the teachers and the resources those teachers have or even the number of available teachers. And with a lack of teachers come difficult conditions like overcrowded classrooms and limited interaction with students.

Teacher Shortages Aren’t Just a COVID Problem

Statistics from the United States demonstrate a frustrating shortage of teachers is not something limited to just “third world” countries.

The perennial shortage of teachers is a long-standing problem in the United States as well. This is not just a problem caused by COVID, although that worsened the situation.

Retirement rates among teachers in 2020 were 29% higher than the year before. We can only assume that 2021 and 2022 will demonstrate similar numbers. After all, we ARE witnessing a Mass Resignation anyway, aren’t we?

Add to that the difficulty in recruiting and retaining new teachers because of low salaries, expensive college education, and challenging bureaucracy. One of the main platforms in President Biden’s Build Back Better program has been an effort to train and recruit the teachers that American schools need in the years to come.

But then we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the First Lady, Jill Biden, still teaches classes on Tuesday morning at Northern Virginia Community College. Has anyone ever been closer to the Presidency with a better understanding of the importance of quality education?

Censorship and Attacks on Public Education Diminish Us All

And this can’t be made easier by stories in the media of attacks on school boards and teachers around “culture war” issues such as:

  • Efforts to censor any kind of accurate discussion of American history by labelling it as Critical Race Theory
  • Attacks on young members of the LGBTQ community with bills like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill recently passed in Florida and mimicked across the country

These “culture war” campaigns have spread outside the educational system to include efforts to purge public library systems of things as revolutionary as:

  • Michelle Obama’s autobiography
  • Books about Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks
  • LGBTQ-themed books like: and tango makes three, Am I Blue? Coming Out of the Silence, and Daddy’s Roommate

And then we have stories like:

Work conditions like that are almost certain to drive away even the best-intentioned prospective teacher.

Class Size is More Than Just an Administrative Oversight

In my home province of Ontario, the Ford Government began an effort to save money on education by “adjusting” the average class size across grades and boards. And to be clear: “The class sizes have been (increased), so those teacher jobs will no longer be required,” Weltman said. “It’s not a cut, it’s a cost avoidance.” Peter Weldman is Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer.

But while it might be a cost avoidance, it’s also a kick in the gut to quality education. According to The National Council of Teachers in Education:

“Overall, research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments when compared to their peers in larger classes. In smaller classes students tend to be as much as one to two months ahead in content knowledge, and they score higher on standardized assessments.”

What the World Needs Now…

The problems facing the world today need people who understand science and facts. It feels strange even to need to make a statement like that about a country as rich as the United States. America’s status as a beacon to the world can only suffer as we see the battles at school boards and in libraries across the country.

The United Nations points out the role that quality education has in developing a strong economy and civil society. Without that, it’s hard to know how a society can function or grow to its true potential.

Join in the story

Good quality, equitable, and accessible education that teaches our children to think clearly benefits everyone. SDG # 4: Quality Education is definitely a goal that deserves our attention and our support.

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Many thanks

Todd Race, The SRI Writer

P. S. Like many bloggers, I am a passionate advocate for my subject of interest. I write about issues related to socially responsible investing. When I am not writing for SRI Writer, I am a freelance content marketing writer. I specialize in writing for credit unions and financial advisors with an interest in socially responsible investing. If you’re interested in working with me, please write to me at or visit my other site at