Day of the African Child: improving education with data

Numbers, facts and figures can be daunting. Discuss too much data and people’s eyes are sure to glaze over. But let me assure you, data can make all the difference.

The Out-of-School Children Initiative is an example of how UNICEF and its partners use numbers, facts and figures to change children’s lives. On the Day of the African Child – celebrated today and dedicated this year to “a child-friendly, quality, free and compulsory education for all children in Africa” – let me throw out some data on children and education in Africa:

  • About 60 per cent of illiterate youths in sub-Saharan Africa are girls .
  • 18 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa have access to pre-primary education compared to 50 per cent worldwide;
  • Nearly 8 million lower secondary school-aged children are not enrolled in school in eastern and southern Africa;
  • Nearly 37 per cent of children in primary school in West and Central Africa are at risk of dropping out;
  • 34 per cent of lower secondary school-aged children in West and Central Africa do not attend school; and
  • Less than two thirds of primary school teachers in West and Central Africa are trained in the profession.

This is the kind of data that the Out-of-School Children Initiative works with every day.

The initiative is a partnership between UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics with support from the Global Partnership for Education. It uses diverse data sets including education data, health data, regional surveys and population surveys to identify and count the ‘invisible’ children who are not in school. It has collected and analysed data in over 30 countries to determine also where children are not in school and why. With this information in hand, local and national authorities and other partners can initiate targeted strategies for change.

Today, the Day of the African Child, the initiative is releasing reports on its work in Africa. Good data, of course. The collection of all this information is critical because one size does not fit all when it comes to children and education.

Certainly, global trends indicate which children are likely to be out of school. From Bolivia to Cambodia, poor girls from rural areas with uneducated mothers are likely to be excluded. War, conflict and natural disaster are also likely to reduce a child’s chance of getting an education. So is disability or being from an ethnic minority. But the gritty details of why children miss out on school vary greatly between countries, regions and localities.

These are the details in the data that the Out-of-School Children Initiative uncovers and uses to help local and national educational leaders make policy decisions.

Data at work
Site specific data have been able to influence policy directly , making a difference in children’s lives. In countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, data and analysis revealed that children forced to repeat grades were likely to drop out of school. In Brazil, an advocacy campaign focused on teaching literacy at the right age led to a 56 per cent drop in illiteracy rates for 8-year-olds.

Data has also been used to influence policy in Africa. In Ghana, data show that children in remote northern regions of the country are less likely to get an education than children in the south. As a result of the information, the Out-of-School Children Initiative is working with educational leaders to increase resources to the more disadvantaged regions.

In Mozambique, where making the transition to secondary education is difficult for girls, programmes have been introduced to encourage girls to continue their schooling. Scholarships have been provided and local schools upgraded to include upper secondary grades so girls can attend school in their villages.

Not just a number
Data collection and analysis is central to UNICEF’s work in every area. In education, UNICEF is working with cutting edge metrics, increasingly nuanced data, and technology that allows fast access to information that can inform policy decisions.

Of course, the point is not the data. It is knowing which children are falling behind, placing them at the front of the line, and providing assistance tailored to their needs. The point is providing children with the skills they need to lead decent lives. After all, they are children, not data.

Jo Bourne is the Chief of Education, UNICEF New York.

Read the full East and Southern Africa OOSCI Regional Study and West and Central Africa OOSCI Regional Study.

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