Learning levels unknown for over half a billion children. A new education data ecosystem is needed

The first ever global Conference on Education Data and Statistics starts today. It is being convened by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) in Paris. You can watch the opening ceremony online here. Among other issues, it will discuss the gaps in data that have led to significant blind spots on children’s education around the world and present solutions to fix them.

The Conference has three core objectives this week. It aims to:

  1. Establish the process for an international community of practice among education statisticians and set a broad agenda for the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG) on SDG 4 Indicators.
  2. Communicate, discuss, and reach consensus on key issues regarding concepts, definitions, methodologies, and operational aspects of SDG 4 indicator measurement in the form of recommendations and guidelines for adoption as international standards to improve comparability.
  3. Debate the impact of technological developments on education statistics and ways in which the community of education statisticians can benefit from opportunities and address challenges.

The UIS, which is hosting the conference, is the official source of data on SDG 4 and works to fill data gaps along with national statistical offices, line ministries and other statistical organisations, as this blog series on education data has explained in the past few days.

Since the goal was set, the UIS has introduced new approaches to fill data gaps, which have enabled it to improve the share of countries reporting on government spending on education from 68% to 90%. A new model visualized on the VIEW website has been used to compile multiple data sources on out-of-school children, increasing the share of countries for which we have data from 62% to 98%. This innovative approach provided new numbers on how many children were out of school in 2022 in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria that had not reported data for over a decade, although of course there is uncertainty for areas where conflict is hampering data collection.

Despite the huge amount of effort countries have put into monitoring SDG 4 indicators, however, almost half are not measuring children’s learning levels as they progress through school, leaving 680 million children’s achievement uncounted. Some regions suffer particularly large learning data gaps, with 93% of children in Central and Southern Asia and 62% in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia of children without ever having had their reading skills assessed at the end of primary or lower secondary school since 2015 reported in the SDG database.

In 2016, the Technical Cooperation Group on SDG 4 Indicator (TCG) was established to look at exactly how to monitor progress towards SDG 4. It sets and approves new indicators, including the seven SDG 4 benchmark indicators monitored in the new annual SDG 4 scorecard. It ensures a balanced representation of UNESCO member states and has five thematic working groups, all of which will have a session at the Conference this week covering issues such as administrative data, household surveys, ISCED, teachers, education expenditure and SDG 4 benchmarks.

While the International Labour Organisation recently celebrated the 100-year anniversary of its labour statistics conference, education statisticians have not benefited from a regular open forum where questions about improving comparable data can be explored. It is therefore the appropriate moment – halfway to 2030 – for a wider gathering to set a new agenda for education statistics.

Many of the issues have been detailed in the series of blogs that have featured on this site the last few days, but the top issues are listed here below:

  1. Education data ecosystem: There is a need to assess coverage and efficiency of data collection efforts and to establish better synergies that might combine different types of data sources (such as administrative data and household surveys) to expand data coverage. Plans need to include efforts to develop the capacity of Member States.
  2. ISCED: This framework, which maps every national education system to facilitate comparisons between countries, requires constant improvements. It is a valuable tool that has inspired the UIS to create the ISCED-T, a framework to capture the characteristics of teacher training programmes in order to improve the way we compare teacher quality from one country to another.
  3. Administrative data and capacity development: As covered in this blog, some long-established processes for collecting data need to be improved to help fill data gaps, to improve population estimates, to improve capacity building at the country level and assess support needed, and to prioritise a future education monitoring agenda post-2030.
  4. Teacher indicators: There is a lot of uncertainty still around the basic definitions being used to measure teacher quality, such as how to define when and if teachers are qualified or trained. The Conference will debate new definitions to be considered, and new methodologies that can help monitor this issue, including mapping teacher policies.
  5. Expenditure: There are multiple sources of data for government expenditure on education for the same country and year. There is a need to explore ways to combine different sources, and how to obtain more regular private expenditure data.
  6. Household surveys and the integration of their data: As per this blog, the emphasis on equity in the SDG agenda has drawn household surveys into the spotlight. They have also been useful for filling gaps on core indicators such as out-of-school and completion rates, as done on the VIEW website. The Conference will look at validating indicators that rely on multiple sources, developing an inventory of household surveys, and harmonizing questions in surveys so that their results can be combined and compared.
  7. Learning outcomes: There remain considerable challenges as the headline of this blog suggests, especially related to data gaps. The Conference will provide a forum to discuss standards and criteria that assessments need to fulfil so that their results can be reported. It will also discuss operational and cost issues, as efforts for collective action need to be accelerated.
  8. SDG 4 benchmarks: The SDG 4 benchmarks and SDG 4 Scorecard, the 2024 edition of which was released this morning, is the new way of monitoring progress towards SDG 4. The conference will ensure all Member states are familiar with the process, discuss processes for raising queries, how to update benchmarks, and how to ensure alignment between national, regional and global targets.
  9. Technology: Digital technology development is changing approaches to education monitoring. Big data has potential implications for monitoring SDG 4; protocols for its use and the potential of AI for policy-related indicators will be among the topics to discuss on the third day of the Conference.
  10. Partnerships: Finally, the Conference will also discuss the potential of collaborations, notably with regional organizations and the broad family of UN agencies, to support monitoring some of the multiple angles of SDG 4.



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