Data is critical to achieving universal primary and secondary education

By Jo Bourne, Associate Director and Global Chief of Education, Programme Division, UNICEF, and Albert Motivans, Head of Education Statistics, UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

It is time for a dose of pragmatism: 121 million children and young adolescents are out of school and we do not stand a chance of reaching them by continuing to pursue a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

The optimism of ‘build more schools and they shall come’ will not reach refugees, children who work, children who face discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or disability. Even worse, building more schools will not help the estimated 130 million children who fail to learn basic reading and maths skills despite reaching grade 4.

Simply expanding educational systems has clearly failed to reach all children.  As the international community works to establish new development goals, it will be imperative to focus on the children who were left behind.

OOS_unicef_coverWe believe that robust data on out-of-school children can help.

A new report from UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) demonstrates how the latest data and policy analysis can help us move forward. The report, Fixing the Broken Promise of Education for All: Findings from the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children, draws on data from 26 country studies and seven regional studies. Funded by the Global Partnership for Education, it serves as a roadmap to improve the data, research and policies that are needed to reach the most marginalized children.

What data tell us

Data can tell us who the out-of-school children are, where they live, and why they are excluded. Data also enable us to develop and evaluate policies designed to reach excluded children. A new data exploration tool that accompanies the report presents a nuanced picture of out-of-school children around the world and pinpoints the critical factors that drive exclusion. It also shows the ways in which data can be used for effective policymaking, especially when resources are scarce.

The way forward                                                                     

As the world embarks on a new development agenda, we must invest in better data so we can more effectively reach out-of-school children. Experience from the Global Initiative on Out-School-Children shows some important first steps.

Delve deeper into existing data sources

Household surveys are another rich source. And adding education questions to these surveys would throw brighter light on the most marginalized children. Indeed, information from these sources can unlock valuable insights for policymakers.

Invest in collecting data on vulnerable groups

If we do not target data collection, vulnerable groups will continue to be overlooked.

Credit: Ivy Grace F. Rivera/EFA Report UNESCO
Credit: Ivy Grace F. Rivera/EFA Report UNESCO

For example, the initiative on out-of-school children has collected detailed data on children who were living in shelters or on the streets in conflict-affected provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The survey was a first step towards developing and implementing effective education policies to provide educational opportunities for these children.

Similarly, in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, a new system has been put in place to monitor children with disabilities – children who are often overlooked by education policies.

Use new technologies to identify and reach at-risk children

Improving links between different national data sources can improve the monitoring of children as they move through the education system. But to truly benefit from advances in information management systems, national and district-level authorities need greater support and training.

And finally

It is critical to increase financial and technical support to national statistical offices and education ministries. Better data and more innovative tools will help governments and donors spend their education budgets more wisely. But these data will also help us reach the world’s most marginalized children.

Read the report and explore the data

About the report
The Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children is a UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) partnership and works in more than 50 countries to identify which children are out of school, assess the barriers of exclusion and develop innovative policies so they can go to school and learn. The Initiative is funded by the Global Partnership for Education and the World Bank.



  1. Yes, time for a dose of pragmatism! But this medication will not come from more or better data, but from better ACTIONS targeted on the data.
    Children “out of school” includes those who never enrolled, those who enrolled but didn’t complete primary, those who completed primary but didn’t transition to secondary, those who didn’t complete secondary.
    To this data we must add those who completed secondary but who “passed” nothing such as School Leaving Certificates.
    The recent World Development Report, Mind, Society, Behaviour 2015 (, explores how interventions need to change in many different sectors if we are to achieve development goals and it is when this report is read with specific country data that potential actions emerge.
    For example some data from Nepal:
    97% of children enrol in primary but only about 56% complete.
    86% only of primary survivors transition into secondary.
    28% only of secondary students pass the School Leaving Certificate in government schools

    So, the data is already there, what to do about it?

    Back to the Worldbank report, final section, an example:
    “One way to test the importance of implementation details, for example, would be to experiment
    with different modes of implementation. In 2009, the Kenyan government announced a
    nationwide contract teacher program that would eventually employ 18,000 teachers. In the pilot
    area, some schools were randomly chosen to receive contract teachers as part of the government
    program, while others received a contract teacher under the coordination of a local NGO. The
    evaluation showed how the implementation by the NGO improved students’ test scores across
    diverse contexts, while government implementation had no effect at all (Bold and others

    In my opinion, new actions are critical, much more so than more data. Large and bilateral donors need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask WHY much of their funding has been wasted!

    1. There is an urgent need for creating an environment in education institutions where learning analytics is coalesced with the curriculum at an early stage, enabling the transformation of raw data into actionable insights with regard to the student’s performance. This will help all the stakeholders (such as guardians, academicians, students) in identifying and tracking learning activity of the student and thus empower them to make better decisions. This in turn would help in efficient engagement between all the stakeholders and empower them to take proactive measures to improve a student’s learning

      1. We already know what we need to know! Not enough children complete primary school, the quality of teaching is poor, education systems need a complete overhaul. This is urgent, and has been so for 15 years. We wouldn’t be fiddling around seeking data following an earthquake, a tsunami, or volcanic eruption. Education systems are drowning in analysis paralysis.

  2. The most important data have already been collected by multiple sources. They pertain to learning outcomes and show that most low-income students don’t even learn reading in low-income schools. What actions has Unicef taken?

    1. Helen, are you and I the only two people noticing and caring about this? Your experience is much wider than mine which is confined to Nepal. There, not only UNICEF but UNESCO, DFID and others have been approached by us and our team about this many times. We have offered for them to observe and evaluate our programmes, to designate schools to develop, to collaborate with us on our current research into Quality Education with Kathmandu University …… but all to no avail. No wonder the World Bank Report, Mind, Behaviour, Society calls for development professionals (!) to change.

  3. I think using the Internet is a great idea for kids who can’t make it to school. We actually have a program that gives free phones to those who can’t afford them. Why not create a program to give tablets or laptops to kids and have lessons on there for them. An educated world is so much better.

  4. Randall, that is an example of a good action. However, I’ll wager that millions of these children have neither Internet nor electricity. Certainly the case in Nepal!

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