How can data change children’s lives?

In education, how data is used can make all the difference. UNICEFs Data Must Speak initiative aims to maximize the use of existing education data, so that it can drive policy decisions, inform citizens, and empower communities.

Education holds the key to a better life for millions of children and adolescents worldwide: a life with less poverty, better health and an increased ability to control their future.

Despite growing evidence of education’s benefits, there are 263 million school age children and adolescents still out of school worldwide. Among those most excluded are the poorest girls and boys, those with disabilities, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and those living in remote or conflict-affected areas. In addition, there is a learning crisis: 387 million primary school age children are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.To reach, support and empower them, it is important to know who and where they are and what issues they are facing. This is where data comes in.

A graphic featuring an animated poster titled 'School results' with a speech bubble saying 'Data Must Speak' directed at three adults and a child. Logos featured at the bottom are of: UNICEF, Global Partnership for education, hewlett Foundation, UNESCO, International Institute fro Educational Planning and Pole de Dakar.

Effective use of data is critical

Education systems throughout the world already collect large amounts of data from their schools. Over the past years, data access and quality have improved. However, too often the data is used only to produce long reports filled with dense tables, and nothing much else.

When used effectively data can be a powerful tool to build stronger and more equitable education systems. Data can help decision makers make informed choices to fairly allocate their resources. User-friendly information can also enable communities to take action and drive change in schools. Community-based monitoring is one of the most cost-effective practices to increase both access to school and learning outcomes.

Data should not sleep, it must speak

The Data Must Speak (DMS) initiative is an example of how UNICEF and its partners use existing numbers and figures to change children’s lives. Launched in 2014 and co-funded by the Global Partnership for Education, Hewlett Foundation and the Education Thematic Fund (mainly funded by Norway), DMS’ ultimate goals are to increase equity in access to education and improve learning outcomes. It does so by unlocking and maximizing the utility of education data that already exists.

To achieve its goal, DMS provides direct technical assistance through a range of tools that are adaptable to country contexts. These tools aim to ensure that:

  • Data drives policy decisions: Government education officials, at national and sub-national levels, analyze, compare and use data to inform resource allocation, and education system management with an equity perspective.
  • Communities are empowered: Communities, parents and students are informed of how their schools are resourced and are performing compared to other schools, so that they can take action and pressure school managers into improving school performance and resource allocation.
  • Research generates improved knowledge of what works: Rigorous evaluations are undertaken along the way to learn about what works and doesn’t when making data speak.

    A map of Africa and Asia with the following countries highlighted: Chad, Madagascar, Namibia, Nepal, the Niger, the Philippines, Togo and Zambia.
    © mapchart.netCountries where Data Must Speak activities are already being implemented (solid blue), and countries in which activities are to be implemented soon (striped).

Data at work

DMS is currently being implemented in Madagascar, Namibia, Nepal, the Philippines, Togo and Zambia. Niger and Chad will follow soon.

Nepal and the Philippines

In Nepal, DMS supported the development of an equity index, which provides better information to districts about where schools are lagging. It is used for targeting resources to those districts and hence reducing Nepal’s education and learning inequalities. In the Philippines, DMS and the government developed a formula to give bonuses to teachers in the most challenging areas. This reform will support the deployment of experienced teachers to work in the most disadvantaged schools.

Madagascar, Togo and Zambia

DMS is catalyzing district education offices and school-level community action in these three countries, by supporting the design, development and production of district and school profile cards. It provides training to relevant stakeholders (school directors, inspectors, teachers and parents) on the use of these cards to develop school-improvement plans. Over 8,900 schools in Zambia now have information on how well their schools are resourced and performing in comparison to other schools. In Madagascar 25,000 primary schools have been trained on the use of the school profile cards. This allows the community to engage with school managers for developing school improvement plans, thus leading to increased learning outcomes.

Teachers sitting on benches in a classroom
© UNICEF/Madagascar/2018/RalaivaoTraining on the school profiles for the school directors of the district of Vavatenina, Madagascar

We now have a huge opportunity to use data more effectively, and to make sure that all children benefit from quality education in schools. I hope these facts and the ongoing effort will inspire other partners to join us in the fight to improve how education works.

Read more about the Data Must Speak initiative


Ted Chaiban is Director of the Programme Division in UNICEF.

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