Bringing the data revolution to education, and education to the data revolution

Written by Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education, University of Cambridge.

Calls for a data revolution are putting the spotlight on the importance of more and better data as a means to hold policymakers to account for post-2015 goals. In many ways, education has been at the forefront of approaches to measuring progress over the past 15 years. The influence of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report (GMR) and the efforts of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) in improving the availability of education data provide important lessons for tracking progress post-2015. This experience should play an important contribution to informing the practical next steps for the data revolution.

Building on this experience, a roundtable held at the Overseas Development Institute on 17 November brought together over 40 technical experts, who debated approaches to measuring progress towards post-2015 education targets, with a focus on learning and equity. The meeting coincided with the launch of consultation on post-2015 education indicators by the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to the EFA Steering Committee. As noted in the opening remarks on the data revolution by Neil Jackson, Chief Statistician at DFID, in many ways the education sector is leading the way in thinking about how to monitor post-2015 progress in concrete ways.

One of the problems that the GMR and UIS faced in tracking progress over the past 15 years was that indicators were not set at the time of deciding on education for all goals in 2000, hence the importance of the current consultation process. Another was that data have not been available a sufficiently disaggregated form to track progress on the most disadvantaged subgroups within each country, that is those most likely to be left behind. The GMR’s World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), drawing on internationally-comparable household survey data, has been one step forward in presenting data in an accessible format to show that the poorest children living in rural areas, and often girls, are still far from completing primary school in many countries, and that many are also not learning the basics in reading and mathematics even if they have spent time in school.

A central focus of the data revolution should, therefore, be the development of new ways to collect data on the hardest-to-reach population groups who, invariably, are also those most likely to be left behind in terms of progress towards development goals. One important group that is often missing in existing data are people with disabilities. As Maria Kett of the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre noted at the roundtable, improving data availability that could better inform policymakers on whether children and young people with disabilities are gaining access to education should be possible within a short-time horizon, if appropriate commitments are made. However, identifying relevant ways to assess whether and what they are learning could take a longer time to develop. Innovative ways to collect data on people with disabilities are needed since household surveys often miss them out, particularly if they are living in institutions. Similarly, other groups, such as those living urban slums and nomadic populations, are often not captured in household surveys.

The data revolution should not only be about collecting appropriate data, but also about how it is used. There was unanimous support at the roundtable for Kevin Watkins’ proposal for a ‘stepping stones’ approach, setting interim targets to make sure we don’t wait until 2030 to find out whether we are failing the most marginalized. Participants proposed that such an approach would put pressure on countries to identify strategies to achieve more immediate targets, including by identifying ‘quick wins’ to give an initial impetus to the goals, while also having a longer-term planning horizon to make sure progress does not stop once low-hanging fruit have been plucked – which has been a problem with the current set of goals.

Illustrating the stepping-stones approach using data on child mortality, José Manuel Roche from Save the Children, showed how it can be done, and some of the decisions that would need to be made. For example, should progress be tracked for the most disadvantaged groups only; or the gap between them and the average, or the most advantaged group? Each of these would give a different picture, with progress possible on one dimension but not another. This was just one example of the amount of detailed thinking that is still needed to get measurement right.

Finally, I was struck by one aspect that didn’t arise during the roundtable: there was no discussion of the role of technology in data collection, even though this is a central focus of the UN Data Revolution Report. I believe the approach being taken in the education sector, through the TAG consultation, is the right one: the first step has been to work out what we are aiming for and setting an overall goal and accompanying targets to achieve these ambitions; the second (and current) step is to find ways to track progress towards these targets through identifying indicators, and associated data needs. The associated step is to see what data already exist (such as on school enrolment collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics), and where we need better quality/more regular data (such as household survey data) or new data (such as national assessment data for many countries, or data disaggregated for some invisible population groups).

Then, the next question is how best to collect these data in a timely way, including the role (and potential limitations) of technology in doing so. This needs to learn from experience of what has already been achieved in the use of technology for data collection, including whether and how it can overcome potential biases in sampling of different population groups.

In education, we have much to learn from the wider debates and proposals associated with the data revolution. But I also believe that those designing the data revolution have much to learn from experts in different sectors, including education. We understand the potential of what exists, as well as limitations and gaps that a data revolution can help to address. There are clear benefits of working together so that the data revolution benefits future generations of children and young people.

2 Comments on "Bringing the data revolution to education, and education to the data revolution"

  1. Join the online consultation on post-2015 education indicators – We want to hear from you!

    As Pauline highlights in her blog, UNESCO through its Institute for Statistics has launched an online consultation on indicators to monitor post-2015 education goals and targets. We want to reach everyone with an interest in education. Please see the link below to access the documents and send your feedback by email by 30 January 2015.

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