Introduction

A view held by many in education and development is the less something is monitored, the less it will be taken seriously and improve in meaningful ways at scale. This belief exists even if the area in question is important for moral reasons, for fulfilling policy commitments, for meeting popular demand, or for satisfying some other driver. Fortunately, adult learning and education (ALE) has three main international initiatives and policy tools in place which were agreed in the last 13 years by the majority of countries around the world. These policy tools call for monitoring progress towards achieving specific and yet often complementary action areas and objectives. They are:

  1. (1)

    the Belém Framework for Action (BFA);

  2. (2)

    the 2015 Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (RALE); and

  3. (3)

    Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4).

Progress on the BFA action areas, the RALE content areas and the SDG 4 targets is currently being tracked using two main monitoring approaches organised and administered by different parts of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in coordination with Member States. They are:

  1. (1)

    a triennial survey feeding into the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE); and

  2. (2)

    ongoing indicator-based monitoring of targets for adult learners in SDG 4.

The first monitoring approach was implemented in 2009 to inform recommendations for formulating the BFA (UIL 2010), with five thematic areas of action in ALE defined as policy, governance, finance, quality and participation. Progress on these five thematic areas is now monitored in UNESCO Member States through a reporting mechanism called the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE), which is published at roughly 3-year intervals. It is managed by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in Hamburg (UIL n.d.) in coordination with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) in Montreal. The first GRALE report (GRALE 1) was published in 2009 (UIL 2009). Once agreed in 2015, RALE was incorporated into the same monitoring approach, feeding into GRALE 4 (UIL 2019) and subsequent GRALEs. This brought additional attention and accountability on progress in three content areas of ALE that are considered significant for promoting social, economic and environmental development in different countries: (1) literacy, numeracy and basic skills; (2) vocational education and training; (3) and active/global citizenship education through “community, popular or liberal education” (UNESCO and UIL 2016, p. 7).

The second monitoring approach began in 2015 upon extensive international agreement of a dedicated “global goal” on education among the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Its overarching aim is to

[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (WEF 2016, p. 29).

Positioned in fourth place on the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this goal (SDG 4) is operationalised through seven outcome Targets (4.1–4.7) and three “means of implementation” (4.a–4.c) (WEF 2016, pp. 35–55), which are to be measured for progress based on 43 global and thematic indicators (UIS 2018). According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (ibid.), SDG 4 indicators were developed through several rounds of global consultations with UN Member States, along with “international and regional organizations, academia, businesses and non-governmental (NGOs) and civil society” (ibid., p. 8), and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017. For those indicators lacking internationally-established methodologies and standards, including data sources, support is provided by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), “a globally representative group of 28 national statistical experts established by the UN Statistical Commission in 2015 to develop and implement a global indicator framework for the monitoring of the SDGs” (ibid.).

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics manages the data standardisation and collection process for SDG 4 with participating countries along with a few other groups and external partners, and makes new findings regularly available online for public access.Footnote 1 The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report), published every one or two years by a dedicated department at UNESCO headquarters, also analyses these data, situating them within a predominant theme in education and international development (e.g. “Migration, displacement and education” [UNESCO 2019]), and these are also openly accessible online.Footnote 2

Since 2016, consultations on indicator development are held by the Technical Cooperation Group on the Indicators for SDG 4 – Education 2030 (TCG), comprised of “35 regionally representative members of Member States, multilateral agencies and civil society groups, in addition to the Co-Chair of the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee” (UIS n.d.-a). Membership rotation is every two years, and the TCG Secretariat, which is hosted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, is co-chaired by its director and the director of the GEM Report (ibid.).

TCG works with the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) to make recommendations on developing indicators and for accessing different data sources through cooperation and partnerships (UIS n.d.-a). GAML has six task forcesFootnote 3 organised by Target (4.1, 4.2, 4.4, 4.6 and 4.7), and another on “assessment implementation and capacity development” (ibid.). It is evident from the “about us” description on its homepage that the alliance is strongly oriented towards focusing on learning outcomes and national strategies for learning assessments (UIS n.d.-b).

Of SDG 4’s ten targets – the last three of which are considered “means to implementation” – four speak directly to youth and adult learners. These are Targets 4.3 (quality vocational and tertiary education, including university); 4.4 (technical and vocational training); 4.5 (equal access); and 4.6 (youth and adult literacy and numeracy). These four targets – unpacked in terms of monitoring below in the section labelled “Monitoring targets for adult learners in SDG 4” – cover an array of policy objectives that address different aspects of ALE along a continuum, as part of SDG 4’s overall focus on quality lifelong learning that emphasises improvements to educational inclusion, equity and diversity (WEF 2016). In fact, and especially when looking at the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action (ibid.), SDG 4’s prioritisation of lifelong learning acts as a guiding principle for all education and training systems based on the structure of the goal – and as a mobiliser and amplifier of the entire SDG framework. It reconciles a more holistic view with the inclusion necessary to achieve sustainable development (since without inclusion, it is not sustainable).

Aside from these four targets, the other six of course rely on ALE in different ways, with at least one if not more meriting tracking from this perspective when also considering what GRALE monitors in terms of the five BFA action areas and three RALE content areas. The most obvious one is Target 4.7 on global citizenship and sustainable development, which could be understood as applying to adult learners based on its reference to “all learners” (UN n.d.). However, the indicator for this target appears to have been written with school-going children and youth in mind (e.g. one variable tracked is student assessment). Yet Target 4.7 strongly aligns with the third content area of RALE on active/global citizenship education through “community, popular or liberal education” (UNESCO and UIL 2016, p. 7). Based on a similar logic, Target/means of implementation 4.c on increasing the supply of qualified teachers (UN n.d.) should also be tracked in terms of ALE, since teacher training and professionalisation is notably weak in many countries. This focus aligns with the BFA action area focused on quality. Yet when looking at the indicator for Target/means of implementation 4.c, all variables squarely focus on children and youth in school, for example “Proportion of teachers in: (a) pre-primary; (b) primary; (c) lower secondary; and (d) upper secondary education who have received at least the minimum organized teacher training …” (WEF 2016, p. 81).

The relationship between monitoring and improvement in adult learning and education

Coming back to the commonly held view touched on at the beginning of this article – that what is monitored in education and development gets more attention – the two monitoring approaches just described suggest that ALE is being taken seriously and improving in significant ways around the world, at least in UNESCO Member States. It is true that some global progress has been reported in recent years – see GRALE 3 (UIL 2016) and GRALE 4 (UIL 2019) for indications. However, the relationship between monitoring and improvement in ALE is not completely borne out in the information available on all areas of the BFA and RALE.

For example, one trend observed through recent GRALEs is how comprehensive ALE policy and governance structures are often applied in narrow ways to promote specific interests of employability through skills initiatives for economic growth – a trend also observed by academics working in this area (e.g. Milana and Nesbit 2015). According to Kjell Rubenson et al. (2020), this discourse is driven by policy communities at country level and in some supranational organisations, such as the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), particularly through the latter’s skills strategy that is informed by its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC). According to Rubenson et al.,

the focus of the SDGs is more in line with UNESCO’s traditional humanistic focus on ALE which is nowadays in stark contrast with the strong economic and vocational focus of monitoring undertaken by the European Commission and the OECD (ibid., p. 628).

Importantly, in tracking progress on the BFA action areas and RALE content areas, GRALE distinguishes itself by going beyond an interest in serving industrial needs and market competition which might be considered a private good, to look at how ALE may (or may not) be effectively helping to close the gap on social inequalities (ibid.) as a public good. In fact, Rubenson et al. (2020) call for these supranational organisations – with their sophisticated technical approaches and emphasis on learning outcomes – to expand more into the direction of GRALE and the political perspective it represents by “engag[ing] in R&D [research and development] activities aiming at building the knowledge base on the role of ALE on combating … democratic deficits” (ibid., p. 631).

A focus on economic development partly aligns with achieving action areas and objectives in the three main international initiatives and policy tools for ALE examined in this article – and economic growth is correlated to better levels of income and health over time (UIL 2016), supporting spillover effects that are important to the public. Yet this focus on economic development falls short of other indicators which also facilitate that outcome among others more inclusively (e.g. literacy and numeracy, and active/global citizenship), or lead to other crucial non-economic outcomes (e.g. addressing the climate emergency and biodiversity loss, migration and social integration, community empowerment, intercultural dialogue, reducing conflict).

This imbalance suggests that policies and governance approaches in many countries may not support these other areas to the extent needed to facilitate subsequent impacts that promote social equity and environmental stewardship, as committed to in the three main initiatives and tools under discussion here. Crucially, a lack of prioritising active/global citizenship may actually result in adult learners critically engaging less with their own contextual systems and power structures (e.g. when considering social disadvantage – potentially their own, as depicted in the main thrust of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy; Freire 1970). This phenomenon prolongs adverse circumstances of the status quo, such as social insecurity and unrest, rather than inducing the social cohesion, peace, transformation and sustainable development envisioned in the SDG framework.

Benchmarks of fair participation and viable ALE provision offer indications of whether potential impacts are inclusive, as experienced by people who are in vulnerable situations. GRALE 4 tells us that these groups are either not prioritised enough or not even studied, resulting in a “paucity of reliable data” (UIL 2019, p. 15), which makes “a full understanding of the complexity of the learning situation of vulnerable and excluded groups … more difficult” (ibid.). More than a decade ago, GRALE 1 was predictive in its assessment that “those who have [the] least education continue to get least” (UIL 2009, p. 77). Migrants, refugees and displaced people, who are internal and external to their countries of origin, are of particular concern. According to GRALE 4, 37% of countries did not know this group’s ALE participation rate, and 34–38% did not know about ALE provision to this group (UIL 2019, p. 79). That is over a third of UNESCO Member States surveyed in 2018, which is rather recent, and means there is considerable work to be done in more fully integrating this group into national education systems and lifelong learning opportunities. Failing to do so presents many problems, not least of which is the limited ability of many governments to learn from these activities to better inform their policymaking and implementation strategies for vulnerable groups.

Given these imbalances alongside the global influence of the SDG framework, and especially the prominence of SDG 4 in guiding education and development efforts for all, this article explores how the two monitoring approaches introduced can be brought closer together for promoting all and not just some commitments to ALE. The first section below goes into further detail on the two monitoring approaches, taking into consideration how they are designed and function, along with some thoughts from academic literature on performance in terms of reaching monitoring targets. Building from there, the second section analyses opportunities for synergies between the two approaches to consider ways of strengthening ALE monitoring through more collaboration to improve coverage and efficiency. The third section quickly consolidates major takeaways from this analysis to inform upcoming discussions at the Seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII), a more or less global event from which a new framework for action is presumed to result.

Two monitoring approaches tracking progress on three international policy tools for ALE

The Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE)

Since 2009, which was the start of the current 12-year CONFINTEA cycle, there have been four GRALEs published roughly every three years. The fifth report, GRALE 5 (UIL 2022), is to be launched during CONFINTEA VII in Marrakech in June 2022. Each GRALE has a thematic focus, addressed in a thematic chapter (the upcoming report, for example, highlights citizenship education), and each GRALE includes a designated monitoring chapter. Generating these global reports heavily relies on collecting national data from UNESCO Member States as part of their commitment to realising objectives of the BFA and contributing to this monitoring process (UIL 2010). Therefore, for each GRALE cycle, a survey instrument is designed and used to collect quantitative and qualitative data from countries through a mix of open- and closed-ended questions. The survey investigates different parts of the BFA’s five thematic action areas (policy, governance, finance, quality and participation), with later GRALEs also including questions on the three content areas of RALE (literacy, numeracy and basic skills; vocational education and training; and active/global citizenship education).Footnote 4

More about the GRALE survey and data management

For each cycle, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning designs the survey in consultation with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics along with experts and external partners, and administers it to “focal points” [designated contact persons] at UNESCO National Commissions in Member States who consolidate information from one or more sources into a single response. Once received back by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, these data are cleaned, organised and translated for analysis and drafting of the monitoring chapter in GRALE, and also inform its thematic chapter.

In terms of quantitative data, responses to closed-ended questions are calculated to percentages for reporting on overall findings, also disaggregated by UNESCO world regions and levels of economic development based on the World Bank’s income group categorisations.Footnote 5 These findings are contextualised and enriched to some extent with qualitative data extracted from country responses to open-ended questions in the GRALE survey. These qualitative data provide examples of model principles and practices in ALE, along with any innovations, and reasons for why progress towards parts of the BFA and RALE may be limited. The latter reporting component helps to unveil gaps for further work in specific countries and thematic or technical areas that require more support.

Identifying model practices, innovations and reasons for limited progress lines up with the BFA’s fundamental aim of monitoring to “inform … policy-making in adult learning and education” (UIL 2010, p. 9; emphasis added), which has “given Member States the opportunity to engage in policy learning” (Rubenson et al. 2020, p. 627). As such, GRALE findings and recommendations are intended to contribute to the global knowledge base on ALE in all world regions, which is notably limited (as points of comparison, OECD studies mostly cover economically developed countries, and the same could be said of the Adult Education Survey [AES]Footnote 6 in European countries). GRALE thus offers insights into potential new directions for policy reform and implementation, based on UNESCO Member States’ commitment to this very process in the BFA (UIL 2010).

Looking at the response rate

Since the publication of GRALE 1 (UIL 2009), the response rate to the survey by UNESCO Member States has been relatively high compared to other similar reports seeking to capture a comprehensive picture of activity on the ground. It “increased from 71% in 2015 for GRALE 3 to 80% for GRALE 4” (UIL 2019, p. 28). Yet even at the upper limit of this range, many countries do not respond – for example, in GRALE 4, “20% of Member States (39 countries) did not participate” (ibid., p. 29), and countries in conflict or fragile circumstances are less likely to provide a response to the survey (ibid.). Also, during a given cycle different countries participate, and not all provide answers to all the questions posed in the survey (ibid.). According to GRALE 4, similar to GRALE 3, the survey data are not statistically representative through weighting responses. Rather, the report presents the number of responses to a given survey question and the percentage it represents of participating countries for stocktaking of ALE for an overview, also by region and income groups (ibid.).

Concerns about representing activities on the ground

So far, there is not a lot of scholarly literature that reflects on the GRALE design and how it performs in contributing to the global knowledge base on ALE, which is an area for more attention. Shirley Walters (2020) notes the benefit of UNESCO Member States being strongly encouraged to account for their ALE progress through GRALE, in line with their BFA commitment. However, she notes, this approach is coupled with a challenge in how the survey is administered in countries, making it “inclined to give only a partial view of adult learning and education” (ibid., p. 1) without cross-checking other sources of information. She also critiques the consistency of what countries report under the banner of ALE – a critique already raised in the first GRALE and by other academics – which is interpreted according to national and contextual understandings, specific development needs and priorities. This kind of variation in how ALE is interpreted can result in comparisons that are fuzzy and may even be starkly balancing apples and oranges. According to Walters, ALE is a very broad basket to include “all formal, non-formal and informal or incidental learning and continuing education (both general and vocational) undertaken by adults” (ibid, p. 2). In summary, the reliability of GRALE as a monitoring mechanism is questioned, though Walters suggests it can provide information on trends (ibid.), which would then require further research in regions and countries.

Importantly, Walters (2020) also thinks GRALE could be strengthened by more involvement of civil society organisations in monitoring all indicators of ALE. This involvement would be especially important in relation to “popular-liberal-community education” (ibid., p. 2), which amounts to the third content area of RALE referred to as active/global citizenship education (ibid.). According to Shirley Walters and Astrid von Kotze (2019), these civil society organisations often offer adult learners the kind of political exposure and learning-by-doing opportunities to promote democracy that are actually needed to bring about the transformation aspired to in the SDG framework. But information about this kind of ALE, which is often delivered through non-formal and informal means, may not be reported by governments through the GRALE mechanism.

Monitoring targets for adult learners in SDG 4

Inclusion and equity are pronounced target themes

Since 2015, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics has collected data from Member States, or worked with external partners who have corresponding data sources, on progress towards SDG 4 targets, including the four specific to youth and adult learners. As introduced earlier, three of these are Targets 4.3, 4.4. and 4.5, which essentially promote gender equality and inclusion for adult learners – particularly for people with disabilities and indigenous groups, based on their explicit mention (UN n.d.) – at different levels of education and training, including in university settings, to develop skills for the world of work (UN n.d.). The fourth is Target 4.6, which fundamentally promotes learning outcomes of literacy and numeracy for adults, “both men and women” as is explicitly phrased (ibid.). These four targets, which are essentially policy objectives to be achieved by 2030, have subsequently been operationalised through indicators, which, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, are “markers of change or continuity … to measure the path of development” (UIS 2018, p. 8). Tracking progress on many of the SDG 4 targets is considered statistically complex, with some data sources simply not available (ibid.).

Problems with alignment from targets to indicators

Table 1 shows the indicators used to measure Member States’ progress on SDG 4 targets for adult learners. It is very important to note, and indeed acknowledged by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, that these indicators do not always cover all parts of a target. The implication therefore is that indicators are not always tracking progress on agreed policy objectives set out in targets, at least not in full. According to Yusuf Sayed and Kate Moriarty (2020), the operationalisation of these targets through indicators suggests what those involved may really regard as success – a view held by many, even if the process of indicator development has been officially described as technical and therefore non-political.

For example, Indicator 4.3.1 only tracks the equal access part of Target 4.3 – by comparing participation rates by sex – and not other parts on affordability and quality (UIS 2018). Similarly, Indicator 4.4.1 only tracks information and communications technology (ICT) skills, which appear to boil down to computer skills (ibid.). These skills are of course important for building a knowledge society, and lack of them can create a barrier for many people, in particular women (ibid.). But ICT skills do not nearly cover a more comprehensive list of the skills and broader competencies needed for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship worldwide.

Table 1 SDG 4 targets specific to adult learners and indicators used to measure progress

On self-reporting and collecting a variety of information

The critique of GRALE’s self-reporting and of the breadth and variety of ALE data collected (Walters 2020; Rubenson et al. 2020) is reinforced by the fact that the information shared by Member States in their survey responses is not cross-checked with other sources and also diverges. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics,

it is impossible to verify the accuracy of these self-assessments, and more importantly, there can be large differences in reporting between groups of different cultural and personal backgrounds (UIS 2018, p. 31).

One example, taken from monitoring Indicator 4.4.1, is the way in which men tend to overstate their computer skills and ability to use the Internet, while women tend to do the opposite (ibid.). Similarly, but zoomed out to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) systems, which presumably produce the ICT skills being tracked among many others, Stephanie Allais and Volker Wedekind (2020) note that these systems do not fit easily into international target-setting, indicator development and monitoring strategies: “Target-setting for TVET tends to lead to the designing of TVET systems for labour markets that do not exist and for student populations that countries do not have” (ibid., p. 336). TVET systems are distinctive to the places that created them, including the nature of the economy and labour market, the regulatory environment, among other things, which vary greatly.

Monitoring may not capture data on inclusion and ALE modes

Achieving more social equity through educational inclusion and compensatory action is a major feature of SDG 4, based on the right to education originating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948). This focus comes through especially in Targets 4.3 and 4.5 on access and participation of different groups, and also in Target 4.6 on adults achieving a basic benchmark proficiency of literacy and numeracy. This focus is monitored through Indicators 4.3.1 and 4.5.1 (shown in Table 1), however, “methods to measure participation in non-formal education and training vary substantially worldwide” (UIS 2018, p. 28). Data are less often standardised and captured in non-formal education settings (ibid.), yet it is believed that a significant amount of structured learning for adults takes place in these settings (across tertiary and higher education settings, work environments, community centres, cultural spaces, etc.). Also, more generally, data collection approaches that measure educational inclusion and equity indicators are not fully integrated into many Member States’ national monitoring systems, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, even if SDG 4 monitoring pushes for progress on developing shared strategies (ibid.). Also, where data are available, we must remember that they do not speak to learning outcomes or the quality or relevance of provision offered to adult learners (ibid.), which is important to remember when looking at impacts from ALE that may result in more social equity. This concern would require more longitudinal study that connects back to measures of income, health and other areas for these learners after ALE interventions to see what improved over time and potential links.

Analysing opportunities for synergies between the two approaches

This section considers how the GRALE mechanism dovetails with tracking progress on SDG 4 targets for adult learners, and how the two monitoring approaches can be brought closer together through collaboration to improve coverage and efficiency, while maintaining their separate added value. After all, at least in theory, when the UNESCO Institute for Statistics collects information from UNESCO Member States, the same countries are being asked to report on progress to the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning for GRALE, even if the approach, timeline and type of information collected may differ. Though, as indicated so far, there are a lot of content overlaps, these, if capitalised on, present opportunities for providing more coverage on areas for which one or the other monitoring approach may be missing data.

Collaboration could be strengthened between the two monitoring approaches

For example, there are data sources being used to track progress on certain indicators for SDG 4 targets for adult learners that do not cover all countries – such as Indicator 4.3.1, which appears to rely more rather than less on data sources that cover economically developed countries. Footnote 7 Perhaps GRALE could support improvement of the knowledge base by adding a survey question on this indicator and sharing results. The question might ask Member States about the participation rate of youth and adults in formal and non-formal education and training in the previous 12 months, by sex. Conversely, when the UNESCO Institute for Statistics indirectly collects data on indicators through partners – such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for gaining information on Indicator 4.4.1 that is not provided by Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union) – that information could be shared to inform GRALE analysis. My suggestion is not to directly monitor Indicator 4.4.1, since that is part of following progress on SDG 4, and not part of the two main initiatives and policy tools (the BFA and RALE) monitored by GRALE. Rather, this information could be shared to inform GRALE analysis, while also going beyond to discuss the broader intent of Target 4.4, which, as discussed in the previous section, the indicator does not fully track when it is narrowed down to a focus on ICT skills. In fact, based on the RALE content area of vocational education and training, generally looking at the relevant skills needed in this area would be part of GRALE monitoring, and could help to make up the difference. This way of thinking could strengthen collaboration and robustness across the two monitoring approaches through mutually beneficial activities and information sharing, as long as analysis in subsequent monitoring reports produced by the two approaches does not become too similar.

GRALE could engage more with SDG 4 targets relevant to adult learners

There are other opportunities for GRALE to fill gaps on the broader intent of SDG 4 targets for adult learners when indicators do not fully monitor them, especially when these targets overlap with what GRALE does monitor. Similar to how Target 4.4 narrows in scope through its indicator, as discussed above, the way in which Target 4.3 is operationalised through Indicator 4.3.1 means that aspects of affordability and quality in relation to technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university, are being lost and only participation is captured. But, based on two BFA action areas on finance and quality of the learning process – corresponding to aspects of affordability and quality in Target 4.3 that are not monitored in Indicator 4.3.1 – these missing aspects could be incorporated into the GRALE survey and support discussion of the broader intent of Target 4.3, beyond participation.

GRALE could disaggregate participation and provision to modes of ALE

Indicator 4.5.1 uses parity indices for all SDG 4 indicators that can be disaggregated and yet, as already discussed, these indicators only partially track targets, with the exception of Indicator 4.6.1 (discussed next). While using household survey data may be an option, it may not be enough to capture relevant parity indices for ALE. However, participation is a thematic action area in the BFA – and is shorthand for looking at inclusion and equity in ALE – therefore it seems conceivable that perhaps GRALE can fill gaps.

In many ways, it already does, since participation was the overarching theme of GRALE 4, and the survey instrument, at least in its versions administered since GRALE 3, has focused heavily on disaggregating participation and provision by different target groups. This includes disaggregation by gender, and by those groups considered vulnerable and hardest to reach (e.g. people with disabilities, adult learners from migrant and minority communities, among others).

In light of Target 4.5’s focus on “eliminat[ing] gender disparities in education and ensur[ing] equal access to all levels of education and vocational training” (UN n.d.), GRALE could also more closely examine the different modes of ALE provision offered and participated in by these different target groups. Disaggregation according to modes of formal and non-formal education, also by “informal or incidental learning” (Walters 2020, p. 2), would address some concerns about ALE data collection being too broad and diverse (in terms of lumping different aspects together). GRALE could also address concerns about information gaps on inclusion related to SDG 4 monitoring.

Of course, definitions of what these modes of ALE activities represent would have to accompany the GRALE survey to encourage standardising responses from UNESCO Member States, given the acknowledged variation of these activities between regions and national and sub-national contexts. Collecting data on non-formal education and informal learning, especially related to active/global citizenship, but also the other two RALE content areas, may require a larger discussion on diversifying reporting points, and even broader consultation on survey design, to include civil society organisations if not other experts and stakeholders. Or perhaps there is another possible arrangement that could help increase their involvement in GRALE. This needs more consideration.

It is not clear how GRALE monitoring could support broader discussion of Target 4.6, since the indicator, in this case aligning with the target, tracks proficiency levels of functional literacy and numeracy, which is not specifically called for in terms of monitoring in the BFA or RALE. However, literacy and numeracy are major prioritisations and the basis of recommendations for further progress and monitoring in both of them. The significance of literacy can be seen in the BFA’s statement that “the right to literacy is an inherent part of the right to education” (UIL 2010, p. 6). RALE echoes the BFA by stating,

literacy is an essential means of building people’s knowledge, skills and competencies to cope with the evolving challenges and complexities of life, culture, economy and society (UNESCO and UIL 2016, p. 7).

Perhaps, as in GRALE 2, which featured adult literacy as an overarching theme, future GRALEs can continue discussing and advocating for specific recommendations in the BFA and RALE, particularly for linking adult literacy to other RALE content areas to promote more integrated development strategies. In the GRALE 4 survey, literacy and basic skills were disaggregated, based on being part of the second content area of RALE, in connection to tracking the BFA action area on participation.

Target 4.7 is not explicit to adult learners but should not be forgotten

Target 4.7 addresses “all learners” and therefore appears to include adult learners:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development (UN n.d.).

This target’s many aspects also line up with the third content area of RALE on active/global citizenship education through “community, popular or liberal education” (UNESCO and UIL 2016, p. 7), including environmental stewardship. But, as discussed in a previous section, Indicator 4.7.1 appears to have been conceptualised with children and youth in school in mind (e.g. one variable to be tracked is student assessment):

Extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development, including gender equality and human rights, are mainstreamed at all levels in: (a) national education policies; (b) curricula; (c) teacher education; and (d) student assessment (UIS 2018, p. 36).

That said, we have a hint in the data source used for monitoring Indicator 4.7.1 that it is being interpreted to include adult learners, even if more information could be collected and reported on concerning them. The data source is the reporting mechanism for implementing the 1974 Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Cooperation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (UNESCO 1975), which is surveyed every four years. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the survey for the 1974 Recommendation covers almost all aspects of Indicator 4.7.1, and in 2016, terms and formatting were updated to make it easier to use for Member States to increase their response rate (UIS 2018).

A summary report was produced from the 6th Consultation on implementing the 1974 Recommendation, analysing responses from 83 countries (UNESCO 2018a), which is less than half of all Member States.Footnote 8 The report breaks down “guiding principles” and topics in the 1974 Recommendation and connects them with different aspects of global citizenship education and education for sustainable development in Target 4.7. A main finding – only one out of ten insights related to adult learners – is that these “guiding principles are included in programmes outside formal education, but there is room for progress” (UNESCO 2018b, p. 10). Specifically, 86% (or 67 countries) said these guiding principles were used in programmes outside the school system, and 71% said they were included in non-formal and adult education programmes (ibid.). By region, countries citing the most use of these guiding principles in non-formal programmes were in Africa (92%) and Europe and North America (80%), and countries with the most use of these guiding principles in adult education were in Africa (85%) and the Arab States (86%) (ibid.). While this provides a quick indication of curricula in this area, matching one variable of Indicator 4.7.1, it does not get into the other variables of policies, teacher training and assessments for promoting global citizenship education and education for sustainable development to adult learners.

Perhaps the GRALE survey could collect and share information in relation to policies, teacher training and assessments that promote global citizenship educationFootnote 9 and education for sustainable development to adult learners. Or it could take on this part of reporting, since tracking this kind of policy aligns with the BFA action area on policy and the third RALE content area on active/global citizenship education. Tracking this kind of teacher training and assessments aligns to an extent with the BFA action area on quality. Conversely, based on the importance of popular education offered by civil society organisations raised by Walters and von Kotze (2019) – in particular, as mentioned earlier, through political exposure and learning-by-doing opportunities to promote democracy – it might be helpful for the 1974 Recommendation survey to add more questions in this area, also on community and liberal education, based on their importance in promoting the third RALE content area on active/global citizenship education.

GRALE can expand monitoring of ALE teachers

While not explicitly addressing ALE or teachers of adult learners, Target/means of implementation 4.c focuses on increasing the supply of qualified teachers generally, and especially for economically developing countries

By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States (UN n.d.).

Since ALE teacher training, both pre-service and in-service, and overall professionalisation is weak in many countries, especially in economically developing countries, it seems this target applies to them as well, which aligns with the BFA action area on quality. Yet when looking at the indicator (4.c.1), all variables squarely focus on children and youth in school, as follows:

Proportion of teachers in: (a) pre-primary education; (b) primary education; (c) lower secondary education; and (d) upper secondary education who have received at least the minimum organised teacher training (e.g. pedagogical training) pre-service or in-service required for teaching at the relevant level in a given country, by sex (UIS 2018, p. 40).

Monitoring this area is crucial to offering quality ALE, and GRALE 4 looked at progress on improving pre-service, in-service and employment conditions for relevant educators overall and in relation to the three RALE content areas. Given that Indicator 4.c.1 is not tracking ALE teachers at all, it would be important to enlarge the focus here in future GRALE surveys.

Consolidating major takeaways for informing CONFINTEA VII discussions

Connecting back to our starting point, it appears that only some and not all of what is monitored in education and development gets more attention, at least when it comes to ALE. Thus, collaborative efforts could strengthen coverage and efficiency of GRALE and relevant SDG 4 monitoring, the two approaches presented and discussed in this article. Analysing ways of bringing these two monitoring approaches closer together provides insights which could usefully inform upcoming discussions at CONFINTEA VII, from which a new ALE framework for action is presumed to result. In conclusion, based on my analysis in the section of this article reflecting on “opportunities for synergies”, here are four takeaway points for ALE monitoring to consider going forward.

Point 1

Collaboration between the two approaches of GRALE and relevant SDG 4 monitoring can be expanded to become more mutually beneficial in terms of adding questions in surveys where data are missing, and sharing available information to enhance analysis. To avoid inadvertent competition or redundancy, this improved collaboration includes an interest in ensuring that subsequent monitoring reports produced by the two approaches do not become overly similar. Rather, the point is that these approaches should strengthen each other while remaining complementary in nature – based on the three international initiatives and policy tools they are intended to monitor – and they should support a unified front on ALE monitoring throughout UNESCO.

Point 2

GRALE is well situated to engage with the broader scope of SDG 4 targets explicitly concerning adult learners to fill gaps where indicators do not fully monitor them, especially when these targets overlap with BFA and RALE commitments. Filling these gaps is important to promoting ALE and aligns with what was agreed by the international community in SDG 4.

Point 3

GRALE could disaggregate information on participation and provision to modes of ALE, in particular to gain more data on non-formal and informal learning, and inclusion. Doing so would address some concerns about ALE data collection being too broad and diverse, along with concerns about information gaps on inclusion related to SDG 4 monitoring. Collecting these data, especially on active/global citizenship but also the other two RALE content areas, may require a larger discussion on diversifying reporting points and broadening consultation to include civil society organisations and other experts and stakeholders.

Point 4

GRALE could enlarge its focus on monitoring ALE teachers, particularly in economically developing countries, since this area is not currently being tracked with reference to Target/means of implementation 4.c. Despite its conceptualisation, the indicator does not fully align with SDG 4’s lifelong learning perspective because it does not explicitly mention teachers of adult learners.