How do we really know how many children are out of school?

A version of this post originally appeared on Global Partnership for Education’s Blog, “Education for All”. Reposted with permission.

As part of the ambitious Millennium Development Goals set in the year 2000, the international community pledged to achieve universal primary education. With the target year of 2015 fast approaching, this goal is still far from being reached, and much remains to be done to remove barriers to schooling, particularly for children who are out of school. As the FHI 360 Education Policy and Data Center (EPDC) suggests in its recent report, data availability and reliability on this issue have lagged, making estimates of out-of-school children difficult. The regular revisions of numbers issued by international agencies illustrate this challenge.

A review of available UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) data shows a considerable amount of missing information, particularly for countries where the number of out-of-school children could potentially be quite high given their recent history (for instance, Haiti, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Sudan). For some countries, including Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the figures factored into the global estimate are not published, and the most recent figures available from UIS are more than a decade old (1990–1995). This situation could be amended with greater inclusion of household survey data, which are currently used sporadically, if at all. The Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children has already started a review of all available sources of information for several countries, as well as for the Latin America and the Caribbean region, although data have yet to be integrated into the UIS Data Centre or the UIS e-Atlas on Out-of-School Children.

Use of multiple data sources, however, raises the issue of data discrepancy across sources. A review conducted by EPDC as part of the report revealed that school participation rates may vary dramatically across administrative (school census) and household survey or national census data. Although the issue of data discrepancies is inherently complex and requires in-depth review of each case, there are aspects that can be tackled more easily. One way to make cross-national data comparable is to measure the number of out-of-school children by age group, rather than by class level. Measuring education access for children ages 7–14, as EPDC proposes in its report, would allow for comparable data and refocus attention on the need for all children to have access to quality education — not just those falling in the primary-level age brackets.

We recognize that a precise number of out-of-school children may not be attainable at this time and that improving data quality and timeliness requires substantial investment of resources and time. It is important that education stakeholders and analysts are aware of data gaps, discrepancies, consistency concerns and the caveats with which available information must be used. Data quality is everyone’s concern. We believe that a concerted effort in establishing and maintaining reliable metrics of school participation is an essential element of achieving global success.

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