Local challenges, global imperatives: Cities at the forefront to achieve SDG 4 – a panel session at the 2021 Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Conference

UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) together with members of the Centre for Sustainable Healthy Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods presented a Formal Panel Session at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference on 29 April 2021.

A summary of that panel’s deliberations follows. Download presentations via the links below.


The topic of the panel was ‘Local challenges, global imperatives: Cities at the forefront to achieve SDG 4′, and was informed by work of each organisations at urban level.

An important context for the presentations is that as the world is going through the COVID-19 pandemic, cities are at the forefront of coping with an education crisis that has affected over 60 percent of the global student population (United Nations, 2020 and UNESCO, 2020). In today’s increasingly decentralized education systems, cities, through their local elected authorities, are playing a growing role in the implementation of national and local education policies, in partnership with Ministries of Education and other local actors, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 within their territory. Cities have a social responsibility to their citizens to provide them with equitable and quality education and lifelong learning opportunities. Such is their anticipated contribution to the 2030 Agenda, put forward in SDG 11 calling for ‘sustainable cities and communities’, that the OECD has queried whether cities are ‘the new countries’ (OECD, 2016: 61).

Through their unique position, cities are able to connect multiple state and non-state actors that comprise the local education community, including education staff, parents, pupils, civil society, and public and private institutions. Cities provide a holistic approach to education, complementing formal education through the provision of extra-curricular activities and non-formal education in collaboration with state and non-state actors. Furthermore, cities are the locations where the interdependence between education and other development sectors such as culture, sports, health, welfare or urbanism, is most emphasized. Cities are thus in a position to articulate the voices of the different stakeholders on their territory to co-design education strategies that are relevant to local needs.

With more than 66 percent of the world population expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, cities however face increasingly complex and multi-sectoral challenges to meet their social commitments. The most pressing issues affecting city-level educational planning include global migration, the expansion of the youth population, and the rapid growth of slums, which collectively and individually reinforces the demand for education and lifelong learning opportunities. Cities work in complex and rapidly-changing contexts, as highlighted by the ongoing health crisis. In most countries around the world, cities must articulate national imperatives with local challenges, with little support and guidance from national authorities. Disparities within their own territories increase. Local resources are shrinking, in particular for public services such as education, while the imperative to develop local education strategies that meet the needs of the overall education population and of specific groups, becomes stronger.

The development of education strategies by cities, relying on sound planning and management tools and processes, is essential for cities to ensure equitable access to and provision of quality education for all their citizens. When articulated with other development sectors, education planning can lay down the foundations for intersectoral collaboration and integrated planning, which constitute a prerequisite to provide a collective and coordinated answer to the complex challenges raised by our world. However, while available research and debates around cities focus on their overall contributions to sustainable development, and on urban planning, there is a dearth of analysis on how cities efficiently plan for education.

Based on the results of qualitative and quantitative research projects conducted in diverse geographical areas and socioeconomic contexts, and from the experiences of cities, this panel presented strategies to guide cities to successfully plan for SDG 4. The panel focused on cities that have made education a priority for their territory, and that have developed holistic, innovative and successful strategies to guarantee access to quality education for all children and youth. Specific attention was given to the city’s education strategy and its planning cycle, as well as the ecosystem of actors and sectors involved in educational planning and management at the city level.

In particular, presentations shed light on the following issues:

  • The educational planning cycle at the city level, focusing on the main strengths and assets, but also the challenges that cities face in this process;
  • The relationships between educational planning and urban planning at the city level;
  • Processes and challenges linked to monitoring and evaluation of cities’ education strategies.

The ultimate objective of the panel was to foster knowledge sharing and critical thinking with members of the research community and partners on the key role played by cities in planning for SDG4. It provided an opportunity to take a step back in a rapidly changing and complex context, to reflect on the most relevant approaches for cities to plan for sustainable and inclusive quality education for their youngest citizens, children and youth.

The Chair of the Panel was Michaela Martin, IIEP Research and Development team leader.

Leon Mugabe presents at CIES 2021. Credit: SHLC

Planning for SDG4 at the city level: Learning from experiences. Candy Lugaz, IIEP-UNESCO

In a 21st century characterized by quick changing contexts and unprecedented cross-sectoral crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, planning is a useful and powerful tool to anticipate and prepare for future scenarios. The existence ‘of rational, systematic analysis to the process of educational development’ (Coombs, 1970: 14) is crucial to cope with the evolution of our complex societies. Educational planning lays the foundation for any education system to guarantee the access of all children and youth to education quality, and to build sustainable and peaceful societies.

It is the social responsibility of decision-makers at all levels, be they State or non-State actors, to drive such a change, based on sound planning tools. National governments are ethically, politically and technically committed to their citizens to contribute to the SDGs. Ministries of education have an imperative to design a road map to achieve SDG4 in their countries. Cities, through their local governments, have become their key partners at local level in achieving that goal, as highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis (United Nations, 2020).

Cities plan for the sustainable development of their territory. Involved in a daily relationship with their citizens, they are responsible for designing for the youngest opportunities to grow, learn and flourish. Cities design contextualized education plans to answer the main challenges of their territory and to build on their main strengths.

Planning for education at city level bears specificities in terms of processes, tools, and strategic areas. Relying on a strong proximity with their citizens, cities have the ability to unite all actors of the education community, including school staff, children, parents, civil society, local public administration and private companies. Designing the overall city’s development plan, they connect together sectors such as education, health, urbanism, welfare or culture. Because education intrinsically deals with socio-economic matters, it has the potential to lay the foundations for integrated planning (UNESCO, 2016; Persaud, 2016).

However, despite such a significant experience, from which inspiring lessons can be drawn for educational planning in general, there is a dearth of comparative and global studies on how cities plan for education. This presentation aimed at sharing the lessons learnt from research conducted in cities around the world in planning for education, based on two main activities implemented in 2018-2020: i) a quantitative survey carried out with the Global Network of Learning Cities, and its cluster on educational planning and management, and UIL; and ii) qualitative research conducted in four cities in France. While the cities studied vary according to their size, geographical contexts and socio-economic backgrounds, they share similarities in their contextualized approach to educational planning. The presentation discussed in particular the content of cities education strategies and the experiences of cities in designing, implementing and monitoring education plans, with specific attention given to co-designing processes and intersectoral collaboration.

Kigali toward achieving SDG4. Progress and Challenges in Education Planning. Léon Mugabe and Vincent Manirakiza, University of Rwanda

Kigali in Rwanda is one of the 14 cities under study within Centre for Sustainable Healthy Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods, and undergoing a remarkable urban modernization process observed from infrastructure development, economic opportunities and service delivery. At the same time, it is facing the challenge of rapid and uncontrolled urbanization. City planners and managers struggle to respond to the increasing demands of urban growth. In the education sector, despite some notable improvements, overall realization of desired targets to respond to achieve equitable education for all have not been met. This presentation analysed the urban and education planning framework of Kigali, and its projections and achievements in the last ten years. This was depicted from five education indicators including levels of education attainment,  literacy rates, computer literacy, learning facilities and gender equality and inclusion. The presentation also highlighted  existing problems related to student/teacher ratios and the disparity in terms of quality education between public and private schools. The research presented drew upon secondary data, mainly from the national census of 2012 and the Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey, commonly known as EICVs, conducted in 2010/2011, 2013/2014 and 2016/2017 by the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).

Educational planning in cities: Building a monitoring and evaluation framework for lifelong learning. Alex Howells, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

This presentation addressed the complex task of establishing a monitoring and evaluation framework for lifelong learning in cities. Beginning with an overview of lifelong learning as a broad, all-encompassing concept, the presentation touched on some endeavours to monitor and evaluate lifelong learning at the national and international level. Emphasis then shifted to the local level, specifically the implementation of lifelong learning through the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) and the ways in which educational planning feeds into the monitoring and evaluation of lifelong learning in cities. This was followed by an insight into the UNESCO GNLC’s ‘Key Features of Learning Cities’ as a general monitoring and evaluation framework for lifelong learning in cities, a discussion around its advantages and areas for improvement, and a look at how some members of the GNLC have used these key features as a basis when developing their own sets of indicators. Finally, the presentation raised some key questions for the further development of monitoring and evaluation frameworks for lifelong learning in cities.


Michael Osborne, Professor of Adult and Lifelong Learning and Director of Research, School of Education, University of Glasgow responded to the presentations.

Professor Osborne began by suggesting that urban initiatives tend more often than not tend to side-line education in planning processes, and that there certainly is little recognition of the need to plan across different service portfolios. He spoke wearing several ‘hats’, as a Co-I within SHLC and as the Director in Europe of the PASCAL Observatory. He noted that the guiding themes for the PASCAL Observatory for almost two decades had been the need to take a place-based approach to learning, and reflected on four important issues that the observatory had focused on: the making and management of place; The promoting of Social Capital and socially inclusive policies and practices; the development of Learning Regions and Cities; the development of the role of Higher Education Institutions(HEIs)

Focusing on place management in particular he referred to coordinated efforts undertaken by the “shareholders” within a geographic region.  By collaboratively linking local assets – built, cultural, financial, human, natural, political, and social – shareholders can improve life in their cities and geographic regions.  Cities and multi-jurisdictional regions drive the new economy, and so it is important to think, act, learn, and measure in ways related to the context in which we all want to flourish. Regions that are socially inclusive have more inputs – and can generate more complex activities – for creating balanced development. Cities and regions that encourage boundary spanning collaboration are more sustainable and are better at competing in the global economy. Internally collaborative cities and regions facilitate lifelong learning and promote knowledge sharing. Both formal and informal learning are essential drivers of innovation. The development of the role of Higher Education Institutions(HEIs) in fostering inclusive learning cities and economic and social innovation is particularly important.

He noted that the three presentations spoke to the agenda that PASCAL had established. Candy Lugaz from IIEP had focussed on his initial observations that there is a dearth of comparative studies on a global level that focus on how cities effectively plan for education. Further she had emphasised the importance to look at not only at those with formal responsibilities for education, but at other actors. He added that it is also important to view schools as part of a wider urban eco-system of education.

He further argued that how this is done in the context of other aspects of urban planning is even more rare, and that Candy had made well-informed points about inter-sectoral collaboration. Education as a service is part of a much wider set of services, but there is little planning that crosses sectors. He suggested that Scotland might provide a good model in this respect since there is legislation for community planning that includes a range of providers. Another good model that he had encountered had been the setting up of a city department that explicitly links services together in Melbourne.

He also highlighted Candy’s observations about the importance of mixed methods research – they ‘what’ and the ‘why’, and the links that she has made to the idea of social capital development by stressing the importance of exchange between cities through a ‘community of practice’.

Léon Mugabe and Vincent Manirakiza presented the case of Kigali. The expansion of both the population of Kigali and its geographical spread is very important and implies considerable heterogeneity across the city. Vincent had illustrated this at the beginning of his presentation with the case of urban and rural schools. Mike pointed out that from this presentation we are reminded to always remember that cities are not homogeneous, and we need an understanding that intersecting issues  affect liveability in cities, These will vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. More generally the work of SHLC in Kigali is illustrative of the important link between education, health and sustainability not simply in cities as a whole, but in neighbourhoods.

In relation to Alex Howell’s presentation on learning cities. Mike pointed out that the indicators for a learning city are multi-faceted and include dimensions that cross many sectors and include measures related to health, environment, culture, infrastructure and much more. He concurred that monitoring and evaluation around key indicators that cross these sectors is important, but that one of the key tasks is to operationalise these indicators more extensively, and welcome the fact that UIL is revisiting its metrics. He pointed out that all speakers have pointed to the importance of measurement, and whilst we all intuitively know that COVID-19 has potentially had an enormous effect on learning, most of that discussion has been focussed on schools. However, it is just as likely that there have been effects, both positive and negative, on post-compulsory education. He suggested that we need to capture what these effects have been. To do that we need good measurement tools, and these need to be both macro and micro indicators. Most focus in the literature had been on on macro measures, but we also need to consider at individual level what changes are occurring in learning. What interventions create lifelong learners and what characterises such a learner? He had some thoughts on this issue and some different and possibly more efficient ways of gathering data other rather than surveys, including Big Data approaches as used within the Urban Big Data Centre at the University of Glasgow.


Coombs, P. (1970). What is educational planning? Paris: IIEP-UNESCO.

OECD. (2016). Trends Shaping Education 2016. Paris: OECD Publishing. Retrieved from: http://www.oecd.org/education/trends-shaping-education-22187049.htm

Persaud, A. (2016). « Integrated Planning for Education and Development ». Article commandé pour le Rapport mondial de suivi sur l’éducation 2016, L’éducation pour les peuples et la planète : Créer des avenirs durables pour tous. Retrieved from: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002456/245624E.pdf

UNESCO. (2016). Education for people and planet. Creating sustainable futures for all. Global Education Monitoring Report 2016. Paris: UNESCO. Retrieved from: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002457/245752e.pdf

UNESCO. (2020). COVID-19: Learning Cities on the front line. Retrieved from: https://en.unesco.org/news/covid-19-learning-cities-front-line

United Nations. (2020). Policy Brief: COVID-19 in an Urban World. Retrieved from: https://unsdg.un.org/resources/policy-brief-covid-19-urban-world