How the SDG 4.1.1 Framework and Learning Poverty Can Help Countries Focus Their Education Policy Response to COVID-19

João Pedro Azevedo, Lead Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank Group and Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)

Most governments and development partners are working on identifying, protecting, and supporting learning of the most vulnerable members of the COVID-19 generation. In this blog, we examine how the SDG 4.1.1 framework and the concept of learning poverty are well positioned to help countries understand and act on the impacts of COVID-19 on schooling and learning.

From the minimum proficiency level to a measure of learning deprivation

In October 2018, the international community agreed to be deliberate about tracking progress in learning of students using a global standard. The minimum proficiency level (MPL)­ agreed through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning offers a unique benchmark to help countries and development partners work together to monitor and improve learning for these students that are falling behind. The interactive visualization linked to in the image below (Figure 1) allows you to explore the data used to monitor this SDG, using both the GAML MPL as well as different minimum proficiency levels by interacting with the slider.

Figure 1 shows how SDG 4.1.1. can be used to generate focus on students below the minimum proficiency level (MPL)

Learning poverty: a multidimensional indicator for the education sector

In October 2019, the World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) launched a new multidimensional indicator called learning poverty. It is based on the notion that every child should be in school and be able to read an age-appropriate text by age 10.[1] This formulation reflects the aspiration and serves as an early warning indicator of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 that all children must be in school and learning[2] and builds on two deprivations.

Learning poverty (and Indicator 4.1.1 on learning deprivation) has many desirable characteristics, including simplicity and focus on those in the bottom of the learning distribution (for a longer discussion on some of the properties of the learning poverty measure please see a recent paper). It brings together schooling and learning indicators, as it combines the share of primary-aged children out-of-school who are schooling deprived (SD), and the share of pupils below a minimum proficiency in reading, who are learning deprived (LD). This measure implies that both “more schooling”, which by itself serves a variety of critical societal functions, as well as “better learning” which is important to ensure that time spent in school translates into acquisition of skills and capabilities.

Figure 2 provides an animation which numerically and visually illustrates the concept of learning poverty

The learning poverty indicator is calculated as follows:

LP = [LD x (1-SD)] + [1 x SD]

LP = Learning poverty

LD = Learning deprivation, defined as share of children at the end of primary who read at below the minimum proficiency level, as defined by the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) in the context of the SDG 4.1.1 monitoring

SD = Schooling deprivation, defined as the share of primary aged children who are out-of-school. All out-of-school children are assumed to be below the minimum proficiency level in reading.

By construction, learning poverty can be affected by changes in its two dimensions: (i) learning deprivation as the share of students below the minimum proficiency threshold improves or worsens, or (ii) schooling deprivation as access or age-grade distortion changes due to shocks or policies.

While schooling deprivation can be directly observed depending on whether the child is enrolled or not enrolled in school, learning deprivation cannot be directly observed, and is measured through standardized learning assessments using SDG’s definition of minimum proficiency level, where reading proficiency is defined as:

“Students independently and fluently read simple, short narrative and expository texts. They locate explicitly stated information. They interpret and give some explanations about the key ideas in these texts. They provide simple, personal opinions or judgements about the information, events and characters in a text.” (UIS and GAML 2019)

 SDG 4.1.1, learning poverty and COVID-19

The SDG 4.1.1 framework and the learning poverty measure can help monitor and guide national conversations on the impacts and education policy response to COVID-19 by:

Reaching agreement and clarity on a minimum proficiency level: The GAML process, through the Global Proficiency Framework, has produced detailed documentation about the competences expected to be mastered at the minimum proficiency level (MPL). All this material can be used to inform a national conversation on what elements of the curriculum could be prioritized as the system reopens.

Focus on children falling behind: SDG 4.1.1 uses the MPL to measure the share of students above this threshold reflecting the aspiration that all children must be performing above the MPL. However, during a time of crisis and shock, such as COVID-19, countries might want to pay special attention to those students left behind. The latter is precisely what the measure of learning deprivation used in the learning poverty measure does.

Monitoring multiple dimensions of education:  As schools close, students will lose learning. However, for certain sub-populations, COVID-19 might push students out of the educational system, increasing drop-out rates; and in certain countries, due to a choice of policies and practices, might increase repetition and age-grade distortion. Moreover, if school deprivation increases, through an increase of drop-out or of the age-grade distortion of previously low-performing students, it is statistically possible that average learning scores might increase or at least not fall as much after COVID-19. This misleading result can be avoided if effects are monitored using a measure which is simultaneously sensitive to changes in learning and access to schooling.

COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented crisis within an already existing global crisis of the education system in the developing world. The ability to use it as an opportunity to build back better will depend on the quality of our understanding of its effects. For that, both data and our choice of measures will be equally critical.

[1] World Bank 2019.

[2] SDG 4 makes this commitment: by 2030, signatories will “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” The goal’s target 4.1 is to “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”

Bridging CESA 16-25 and SDG 4: Using Regional Benchmarks to Meet Education Objectives

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and Daniel Capistrano, University College Dublin

This International Day of Education, the impact of COVID-19 on education is top of mind and finding solutions to revitalize learning is a priority, now more than ever. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is working with regional organizations and education partners to expand the global focus on benchmarking for the Sustainable Development Goals for education (SDG 4) so that regions and countries have more manageable, annual objectives.

With just a decade remaining to achieve SDG 4, it is imperative that all countries have the means to monitor progress and to plan necessary changes for the future. As the custodian of SDG 4 data and the lead agency providing internationally comparable and quality education data, the UIS has been working to help countries deal with this challenge.

One of the most effective ways of achieving the Agenda 2030 is by connecting existing efforts. The Africa Regional Report is a product of this collaborative strategy. Worldwide, there are several regional or sub-regional organizations that produce data and follow the progress of education policies based on common goals. Their transnational commitments require national and regional coordination and monitoring mechanisms to identify progress and obstacles. At the same time, they have articulated – or begun to articulate – their regional objectives with the Education 2030 Agenda.

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Ensuring the Next Generation are Global Citizens and Stewards of Sustainable Development: Why Monitoring SDG 4.7 is Essential

By Andrés Sandoval-Hernández, University of Bath, and Diego Carrasco, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

When UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there was not much discussion about how these goals were going to be measured. As we enter the Decade of Action, deciding on a measurement strategy for all SDGs and their targets has become a pressing issue.

We live in very challenging times. The rapid influx of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, along with increasing intolerance, social exclusion and feelings of alienation, extremism among young people, and the ongoing climate crisis, pose complex challenges. To face this global environment, we need information that enables us to think critically, connect our actions with their impacts, and act as empowered, active global citizens.

When looking specifically at SDG 4 for education, Target 4.7 asks Member States to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Today, the 60th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education, we are reminded more than ever of the values of inclusion embodied in this target. While we say no to discrimination in education, let us say yes to inclusivity, respect for our differences and the right of all children to a quality education.

In this blog post we describe a recently developed strategy for assessing two indicators that embody tolerance, respect and sustainable development:

Indicator 4.7.4: Percentage of students by age group (or education level) showing adequate understanding of issues relating to global citizenship and sustainability.

Indicator 4.7.5: Percentage of 15-year-old students showing proficiency in knowledge of environmental science and geoscience.

Indicators 4.7.4 and 4.7.5 speak to empowering and enabling students to be active agents of positive change, while taking action to meet the other goals.

Using UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) data, we are preparing an open-source, robust and easy-to-use document containing detailed technical guidelines for countries and other interested parties to collect the data necessary to produce the scales we discuss below.

Our measurement strategy is based on International Large-Scale Assessments (ILSAs) in education ((Sandoval-Hernández, Isac, & Miranda, 2019; Sandoval-Hernández & Carrasco, 2020)). In our view, ILSAs are a natural fit for assessing these particular thematic indicators because existing studies have already collected much of the relevant information. Our strategy includes a proposed conceptual framework, measurement models, a process to generate proficiency scores, and a method for establishing a threshold of ‘adequate’ and ‘satisfactory’ performance for Indicators 4.7.4 and 4.7.5, respectively.

This measurement strategy has been reviewed and endorsed by the UIS’ Technical Cooperation Group on the Indicators for SDG 4-Education 2030 (TCG), which is responsible for the development and maintenance of the thematic indicator framework for the follow-up and review of SDG 4. The scores are available on the UIS database.

A global content framework

We first identified a global content framework based on UIS data for defining and operationalizing Global Citizenship Education (GCED) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (Hoskins, 2016; IBE, 2016). While there is no universal agreement on how to define or operationalize these concepts, it is possible to identify a set of guiding principles and themes.

We then carried out a mapping exercise to evaluate how to measure concepts in the framework using instruments and procedures of existing ILSAs. To do this, we identified the International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS) as the most valuable source of information for Indicator 4.7.4; and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as the most informative for Indicator 4.7.5. These studies have the highest coverage of topics relevant to the SDGs, and a high potential to inform long-term monitoring. The results of this mapping exercise can be found here.

Producing scores

The analytical strategy to estimate the percentage of students who show ‘adequate’ and ‘satisfactory’ performance in each indicator had four main steps:

  • verifying the availability of observed responses to the items proposed by the mapping exercise,
  • testing the uni-dimensionality of the intended constructs,
  • fitting the corresponding measurement models to obtain scores for the categories and sub-categories of each indicator, and
  • establishing the cut-off points to identify ‘adequate’ or ‘satisfactory’ performance assuming a common measurement model.

A list of the categories and sub-categories of scores produced for Indicator 4.7.4, and a description of student knowledge at the cut-off points are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Categories and descriptions for SDG 4.7.4

The percentage of students showing an ‘adequate’ understanding of issues related to global citizenship and sustainability (Indicator 4.7.4) – according to the scores and cut-off points – is shown in Figure 2. In this waffle plot, each square dot represents 1% of students reaching a certain standard (category or subcategory). As can be observed, there is an important variation in the proportion of students reaching the different standards both across countries and across standards. If we look at the cognitive standard, Latin American countries have lower proportions of students being able to make connections between processes related to global citizenship and sustainability and the legal and institutional mechanisms used to control them; while these proportions are generally higher in northern European and Asian countries (e.g. 19% and 32% in Dominican Republic and Peru vs 77% and 78% in Finland and Chinese Taipei).

Figure 2. Proportion of students reaching the SDG 4.7.4 standards in each country.

Note: Data is presented for all countries for which data is available in ICCS 2016. BFL= Belgium (Flemish); BGR= Bulgaria; CHL= Chile; TWN= Chinese Taipei; COL= Colombia; HRV= Croatia; DNK= Denmark; DOM= Dominican Republic; EST= Estonia; FIN= Finland; HKG= Hong Kong SAR; ITA= Italy; KOR= Korea, Republic of; LVA= Latvia; LTU= Lithuania; MLT= Malta; MEX= Mexico; NLD= Netherlands; DNW= North Rhine-Westphalia; NOR= Norway; PER= Peru; RUS= Russian Federation; SVN= Slovenia; SWE= Sweden.

As with global citizenship and sustainability, the results for Indicator 4.7.5 for environment science and geoscience, also show interesting variations both across countries and standards. A list of the categories and sub-categories for which scores were produce for Indicator 4.7.5 and a description of what students know or can do at the established cut-off points and are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Categories and descriptions for SDG 4.7.5

The percentage of students showing ‘proficiency’ in environmental science and geoscience (Indicator 4.7.5) according to the scores and cut-off points is shown in Figure 4. As in Figure 2, each square dot represents 1% of students reaching a given standard.

When looking at the cognitive standard, Asian countries report the highest proportions of students who are able to apply and communicate concepts related to environmental science in everyday situations (e.g. Singapore, 59%). However, this pattern does not hold for the non-cognitive standards, where Botswanan and Kuwaiti students are the ones who report the highest enjoyment and confidence in learning science (51% and 39% respectively). Nevertheless, we insist that the real value of these measures is that given their reliability, relevance and timeliness, they can be used to inform the development of strategies to reach the targets included in Target 4.7. A full description of the thresholds used to set these standards and the items and methodology used to produce the respective scores can be consulted here.

Figure 4. Proportion of students reaching the SDG 4.7.5 standards in each country

Note: Data is presented for all countries for which data is available in TIMSS 2015. AAD= Abu Dhabi, UAE; ARM= Armenia; AUS= Australia; BHR= Bahrain; BWA= Botswana; ABA= Buenos Aires, Argentina; CAN= Canada; CHL= Chile; TWN= Chinese Taipei; ADU= Dubai, UAE; EGY= Egypt; ENG= England; GEO= Georgia; HKG= Hong Kong, SAR; HUN= Hungary; IRN= Iran, Islamic Rep. of; IRL= Ireland; ISR= Israel; ITA= Italy; JPN= Japan; JOR= Jordan; KAZ= Kazakhstan; KOR= Korea, Rep. of; KWT= Kuwait; LBN= Lebanon; LTU= Lithuania; MYS= Malaysia; MLT= Malta; MAR= Morocco; NZL= New Zealand; NOR= Norway; OMN= Oman; COT= Ontario, Canada; QAT= Qatar; CQU= Quebec, Canada; RUS= Russian Federation; SAU= Saudi Arabia; SGP= Singapore; SVN= Slovenia; ZAF= South Africa; SWE= Sweden; THA= Thailand; TUR= Turkey; ARE= United Arab Emirates; USA= United States.

Conclusions, limitations and suggestions for monitoring these indicators

We believe that studies like TIMSS, ICCS and PISA are well suited for providing at least a proxy measurement of Indicators 4.7.4 and 4.7.5. These ILSAs provide high coverage for the GCED and ESD themes, incorporate these topics naturally in their frameworks, collect comparable data consistently (allowing long-term monitoring), and have unrivalled data quality assurance mechanisms in place (ensuring data accuracy, validity and comparability).

It is, however, important to consider the limitations of this measurement strategy. For example, the data is confined to a specific level of education or student population (e.g. Grade 8 for ICCS and TIMSS; 15-year-old students for PISA). Another limitation is country coverage. The information available in the last cycles of TIMSS and ICCS allowed us to produce scores for 60 countries. While this is a significant number of countries, it is important to acknowledge that two-thirds of UN members do not participate in these studies.

Nevertheless, we believe that with a coordinated effort and support by all stakeholders, many more countries can collect the data for this measurement strategy so that we can work toward the elimination of discrimination in schools and create a more equal and just society.


Prepared for the Future: A New Indicator That Combines Completion with Learning

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring Report

New global indicator will provide a simple, comprehensive measure of progress towards the education goal, SDG4.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) for education recognizes that all children deserve, and have the right to, a quality education. Over the last three decades, enrollment has risen to historic highs, though school disruptions and the economic implications of COVID-19 will offset some of these gains. But enrollment is only a part of what children need. For children to be fully prepared for the future, they need to complete their education, and emerge having learnt at least the basics. The new global indicator will combine all these critical factors to provide a snapshot of progress towards SDG 4.

Completing and learning are critical elements of a quality education

Unfortunately, in some of the poorest regions where children are most in need of a high-quality education to get ahead, poor learning outcomes often result in higher drop-out rates with large numbers of children not completing school at all – or completing it when more than five years older than the intended graduation age for that level. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where 82% of primary aged children are enrolled in school at the right grade for their age, just 62% graduate from this level on time. When children don’t finish school, it is hard, if not impossible, for any more learning to happen.

Even where education is free, poor families still pay for books and uniforms, and there is the perceived “opportunity cost” of lost income or help with household chores, while children are in school. If parents don’t see a pay-off from their investment in education, children can be pulled out of school before completing a level, or when transitioning between levels, from say, primary school, to lower secondary.

Introducing the new indicator: Prepared for the Future

To underline the need for countries to prioritize school completion, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), working through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), is proposing a new, holistic, indicator that will track both completion and learning combined. The aim is to ensure that global leaders and education policy makers have the evidence they need to zero in on where they stand on their SDG 4 commitments. With ten targets and 42 indicators in the monitoring framework for SDG 4, some might argue that it is hard to quickly grasp where countries stand in their progress towards the goal. With so many touch-points, it risks calls for change being watered down. This new indicator will hopefully answer these concerns, providing a simple rallying reference point for all education actors to lobby for improvement, ensuring all children are prepared for the future.

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Rethinking School Infrastructure During a Global Health Crisis

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

After more than 6 months since the beginning of national lockdowns and school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening schools is necessary and essential. Interruptions to classroom-based instructions have widened existing inequalities for vulnerable populations and reduced access to learning for a large fraction of the world’s children and youth. The longer schools remain closed, the more likely disadvantaged children are at risk of dropping out of school completely. Before the pandemic, children from the poorest households were already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than their richer counterparts.

Proper infrastructure lacking to prevent the spread of COVID-19

As countries start to rethink how to address school openings, new national risk mitigation measures and public health regulations need to be considered within the school’s physical space. Children’s role in transmitting the coronavirus is still uncertain, and younger children are less likely to be sensitive or respectful of strict measures. As such, few schools are prepared to reopen in a way that can protect children, teachers and other school staff. Two of the most important measures cited by global health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – namely, frequent and proper hand washing (using soap and water) and social distancing – are highly dependent on the existing physical infrastructure.

COVID-19-related hygiene and social distancing norms in schools are unearthing a range of systemic problems with infrastructure in schools across the world. From European schools in densely-populated urban areas to rural remote village schools in the mountains of north-eastern Cambodia, schools are facing a wide range of challenges in their provision of adequately protective COVID-19 environments. Inadequate physical conditions, such as water shortages, poor sanitation and small classrooms, are proving difficult to overcome in the short-term for an immediate response.

Almost half the schools in the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and water while one-third are lacking in basic sanitation (i.e. improved facilities that are single-sex and usable at the school). Overall, schools in rural areas fare worse than those in urban areas while children at the pre-primary and primary levels have less access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities than those in higher education levels. Younger children are more likely to be vulnerable to WASH-related diseases, yet are at the right ages at which to establish foundational learning around health and hygiene. Thus, training young children, staff and family members is an essential component to establishing WASH services for a community.

Establishing adequate WASH facilities for vulnerable populations is crucial

Basic WASH facilities in schools are particularly important for WASH-vulnerable populations, including girls, persons with disabilities, children from poor households and children living in fragile contexts. Access to water and sanitation is not only a right in itself as established in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – and safeguarded by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – but it contributes to the realization of other child rights, such as health, nutrition and education. Girls require separate latrines as a fundamental part of their safety and healthy participation in life. Girls are more likely to enrol, attend and complete school if they have access to single-sex facilities, which are essential, particularly for menstrual hygiene management. Yet, this is only the case in 54% of the least developed countries, compared to 72% in Eastern and South-eastern Asia, 79% in in Central and Southern Asia and 81% in Latin America and the Caribbean (UIS database). According to World Bank ranked income levels, only 73% of lower middle income countries provide single-sex basic sanitation facilities to their female students, compared to the World average of 78% and 97% of high income countries.

In addition to WASH concerns, schools needs to consider the existing physical learning environment to safeguard social distancing norms. Adapting school norms to larger classrooms as a long-term response to the COVID-19 situation can also help establish quality learning environments in the long-term. There are no set international standards for classroom sizes or ratios, although norms and guidelines exist to provide guidance on better quality learning environments. In 2005, UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Schools Manual recommended a minimum 3.8 metres squared per child in early learning centres. Setting minimum spaces for children in higher education levels is more complex, however, and depends on the conditions of the local community (including projected population growth) as well as environmental and climatic conditions. In Rwanda, a minimum of one squared meter per pupil is considered adequate. One can also establish a basis for the overall classroom size, whereby child-friendly classrooms could reach a minimum of 100 square meters if playing areas and multi-activity classrooms are included. For example, the preschool square footage per student ratio is usually higher than for primary schools as younger children are less frequently required to sit still at their desks.

Global Education Coalition initiatives provides guidance

Changing or adapting infrastructure to meet the new demands, however, can prove an expensive enterprise for many countries. Indeed, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) provided more than one-fifth of its total COVID-19 response grants (USD 266 million) to programmes in 12 countries that prepared school facilities for reopenings in safe environments for children and teachers. The Global Education Coalition for COVID-19 Response – launched by UNESCO in partnership with UNICEF, the World Bank, the World Food Programme and other United Nations agencies, international organizations, private sector and civil society representatives – developed the Framework for reopening schools. Reopening schools is composed of a three-step process (before, during and after reopening) and organised according to operational safety standards, learning practices, well-being and protection that reach out to the most marginalised populations (including girls). In addition to investing in WASH to mitigate virus transmission risks, the Framework aims to provide a holistic approach on safe operational procedures by including and training teachers and school staff in adhering to social distancing measures and adopting relevant hygiene practices. A more recent jointly developed update to proper procedures and checklists to consider prior to reopening is also now available.

Ensuring classrooms and materials are accessible and inclusive has been the cornerstone of quality learning environments, and such standards are well aligned with needs during the COVID-19 reopenings. For example, modular classrooms – where furniture can be moved, collapsed or put away – is already a recommendation in some national guidelines for classrooms. As children and projects evolve and change during the school year, spaces that are adaptive can reduce the density of students in the classroom as required by social distancing norms.

Some adopted measures can be detrimental to effective learning

Adaptations to small classroom spaces has been shown to provide less than ideal reopening environments in some countries. To maintain WHO-recommended distancing measures among students and teachers (minimum of 1 meter squared), many schools have limited the number of students returning to classrooms at the same time, thereby reducing effective classroom time for all students. In addition, WHO guidelines recommend several decision points with regards to school reopenings, with specific attention paid to local trends on COVID-19 cases. The guidelines in France, for example, adapted an approach that prioritised certain students (i.e. those of medical workers), followed by children from vulnerable families. Thus, the total amount of time returning to the classroom is a function of the strict social distancing requirements, the school’s physical infrastructure, teacher availability and children’s background.

As effective learning time is reduced for all students, a temporary response is to prioritise learning according to student needs. Limited time in the classroom can make teachers face more time-stress to meet the needs of national curricula and high-stakes examinations for certification or selection to the next education level. As part of the crisis-sensitive approach, education planners can reassess curricular objectives and transitions to upper education levels.

In 2015, the global community validated the importance of infrastructure to deliver quality education for all learners and teachers, regardless of background or disability status. The international standard noted in the Education 2030 Framework states that “Every learning environment should be accessible to all and have adequate resources and infrastructure to ensure reasonable class sizes and provide sanitation facilities.” Sanitation crises such as COVID-19 mark the urgency in reaching these goals and highlight existing concerns around poor learning environments. However, this moment can also serve as a catalyst to improve learning conditions and outcomes for all children.

The Importance of Monitoring and Improving ICT Use in Education Post-Confinement

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics; and Alexandre Barbosa, Head of the Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society, under the auspices of UNESCO, Brazil (

The global provision of schooling is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Within the span of a few months, 191 countries had closed their schools to deploy social distancing measures in accordance with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations. More than 1.5 billion students from pre-primary to university-level have been affected by these closures, with classroom-based learning interrupted for indefinite periods of time. While some education systems, teachers, students and parents were somewhat prepared to adapt to existing distance learning programmes and platforms, millions were not.

In the context of COVID-19 school closures, paper-based and digital distance education platforms have become essential to the continued provision of education for all. After more than a month of school closures across the world, many students are still struggling with remote learning. Global estimates suggest that 826 million students are without a household computer, 706 million lack internet access at home and another 56 million lack coverage by mobile 3G/4G networks. To better gauge the scope of the impact of school closures and of the ensuing national education responses, a survey of ministries of education developed jointly by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank was recently launched to more accurately inform a collaborative global education response.

Without adequate information and communication technology (ICT) devices, internet/mobile network access, educational resources and teachers’ training, students simply cannot partake in distance education to continue on their learning trajectories. At most risk of being left behind are students from resource-poor areas, remote rural areas and low-income households. In addition, learners with disabilities or those who use a different language in the home than in school will require more individualised support.

Multiple delivery channels are an essential component to reach all children and youth during this pandemic. A recent UNICEF survey found that 68% of the 127 countries were using a combination of digital and non-digital delivery of remote education (i.e. TV, radio and take-home packages). Even before the COVID-19 related school closures, the use of radio, video and television for remote learning has proven to be strong components of well-designed numeracy, literacy and financial education programmes for children, youth and adults living in remote and rural communities. However, the implementation and reach of such programmes require the monitoring and support of trained educators.

Distance learning also requires that school systems consider the needs of parents and guardians who have to step in to facilitate learning to ensure the pedagogical continuity of their children, especially for the children in earlier grades (Grades 1-3) who need more one-on-one support. The ability for parents and guardians to effectively facilitate home-based learning depends on a variety of interacting factors, including their education level, native language and time availability. Understanding parental digital literacy – which could be estimated from SDG 4 Indicator 4.4.1 that assesses ICT skills among youth and adults – is essential for targeting skill support and development for parents. Without ICT skills support for the adults in the home, children from families with poor digital literacy are likely to fall even further behind.

Developing ICT skills to ensure education weathers the storm of future crises

Reports of parents, teachers, communities and networks that have developed innovative and makeshift interventions, such as mobile-based Wi-Fi networks as well as on-demand content and textbooks available in clouds — to broaden digital capacities have certainly sparked optimism. However, these grassroots efforts largely serve as a short-term band-aid solution. Although they are inspiring, more fundamental developments to bolster access to and use of ICT are required – both at home and in schools, and especially for younger learners at the primary and secondary levels where gaps are largest. Hastily put-together remote teaching approaches have not proven to be optimal learning experiences and could be off-putting to some students.

School closures such as those currently experienced by the more than 1.5 billion students worldwide are commonplace in some countries due to natural emergencies, conflict as well as budgetary or labour negotiations. Once schools reopen, building skills and support for distance education in schools so learners can continue learning in the home can help minimise learning interruptions as well as deter learners from leaving school early or dropping out in the event of future crises. In addition, there remains a possibility that the COVID-19 crisis and its ensuing confinement measures may not be short-lived as flare-ups of cases may spark future school closures in certain countries. As some countries begin to reopen their schools, they will need to select innovative remote teaching modalities that blend with face-to-face teaching to ensure that learners are better prepared for future school closures. Thus, given the importance of distance education in the current context and in anticipation of future crises, countries need to take responsibility for monitoring, facilitating and enabling access to ICT in schools as well as in the homes of all learners.

Current measures of ICT availability fall short of capturing the needs in certain countries and regions as they fail to report on factors, such as the availability of electricity (grid- or solar based) and access to computers for pedagogical purposes, which are primary necessities. At a global level, these indicators are needed to monitor ICT use and detect national trends. However, they are not sufficiently detailed or policy-oriented to provide governments with adequate information to improve access to and use of ICT in education as well as sufficient information on teacher training and digital skills. For instance, counting the number of computers per school or per student poorly reflects the use of computers, which may in fact be minimal if these devices are locked in computer labs.

Monitoring ICT use in schools to better inform education policies post-confinement

Reliable data from school-based surveys can provide the quality ICT use data required to better inform education policy and practices, especially in developing countries. Capturing the complex set of factors involved will paint a more accurate picture of what is available and used by both students and teachers. This includes information, such as availability of digital infrastructure; internet connection speed; school activities in which teachers use ICT; training received by teachers to empower them to integrate ICT into their practices; strategies implemented by schools to develop digital skills; and perceptions by principals and teachers on ICT use in education and its barriers. Furthermore, the presence of qualified technical staff (e.g. technicians, librarians) is required to support the use of ICT in schools, including ensuring digital access and ICT learning among teachers.

These indicators and more are proposed in the Practical Guide to Implement Surveys on ICT Use in Primary and Secondary Schools – a joint publication by the UIS and (Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society). The guide discusses the relevance of survey data on ICT use in schools to inform policymaking and underscores the need for robust data to understand factors that determine equal access to and use of technologies by the teachers, principals, students and their families.

The guide serves as an especially useful reference for government agencies, school authorities and other stakeholders looking to measure ICT access and use in education as it outlines the methodology and steps required to conduct a successful survey (i.e. planning, fieldwork, data processing, reporting and dissemination). This comprehensive document also examines the practical aspects of developing school-based surveys explicitly related to ICT and includes methodological datasheets for 26 core and optional indicators.

As some countries begin to reopen their schools, promoting equity in ICT access and use will continue to be an important factor to consider when addressing educational challenges for disadvantaged schools and learners from vulnerable households. In addition, the availability of computers, tablets, mobile phones and other potential learning devices, along with the provision of internet access in the home, will ultimately determine which children will be able to participate in distance learning and be more likely to complete their education in the event of future school closures.

Bridging the digital divide at home and in schools

Evidence indicates that there is a substantial ‘digital divide’ in access to ICT between countries. For example, according to estimates from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 21% of learners in Africa cannot be reached by 3G mobile networks. In terms of internet access, 82.2% of households in Africa lack access in the home (see Figure 1). To bridge the divide and encourage mobile-based education, and in addition to infrastructure investment, lowering the cost to consumers to gain access to online data needs to be considered as these are prohibitive in many countries.

Source: International Telecommunication Union (ITU) 

Under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all, governments have committed both to increase digital skills and expand ICT infrastructure in schools. To support distance education, schools will need to better equip learners with the skills to migrate onto these online learning platforms. Moreover, closing the ‘digital divide’ will require governments to invest in supporting learners in the early grades of school. In this endeavour, the first step is to map within and between countries where investment is most needed. This requires better measures of access to and use of digital technologies in schools.

The latest UIS data for SDG Indicator 4.a.1 on the availability of electricity, computers and internet in schools for pedagogical purposes indicate that certain regions are behind in their capabilities to support learners. Although sub-Saharan Africa as well as Central and Southern Asia do not have sufficient data for this indicator in lower education levels, there is adequate data for upper-secondary schools. Only about one quarter of upper-secondary schools in sub-Saharan Africa and one-half in Central and Southern Asia are equipped with internet access (see Figure 2). Electricity – another necessity – is also not available equitably across regions and school levels. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 33.8% of primary schools have access to electricity while the same holds true for 57.2% of upper-secondary schools in the region. The situation is bleaker still in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where only 13.7% of upper-secondary schools have access to electricity.

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, SDG 4 Data Explorer (data for the latest available year used). 

Teacher training as part of the solution to closing the ICT skill gap

As noted, beyond the provision of internet access and ICT equipment in education, there is also a need to support learners by building their ICT skills. But what about teachers? During this period of school closures, teachers require training in the use of distance learning platforms to ensure teaching and learning can continue. While some of the 63 million primary and secondary school teachers who were displaced by COVID-19-related school closures have managed to reach students with their existing set of skills and equipment, many have not received basic teacher training. It is therefore disconcerting that most teacher training programmes do not include the use of ICT in education to develop appropriate learning and teaching strategies. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 64% of primary and 50% of secondary teachers have received minimum training. Indicators recommended in the Practical Guide to Implement Surveys on ICT Use in Primary and Secondary Schools can point to specific areas in which teacher training needs to be reinforced to improve ICT skills.

Use of ICTs for education during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond is a reality for which teachers and learners must be better prepared. This crisis marks the time for government-led initiatives for schools to test innovative methods to reach out to students, learn from other countries and incorporate effective approaches into the regular provision of education. Digital technologies need to be integrated within sound learning programmes to create effective student learning experiences. Countries need to make the necessary preparations to better map teaching and learning needs for future crises in education. As a necessary step, this requires collecting robust survey data on ICT use in schools to adequately guide policymaking.

Benchmarks: Using Data to Set Evidence-based Targets to Improve Learning Proficiency

By Martin Gustafsson, Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP), University of Stellenbosch

In a recent blog, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the Global Education Monitoring Report explored how benchmarks can be used to  accelerate progress towards SDG 4.  To further these discussions, the UIS has released a new report, entitled Evidence-based Projections and Benchmarks for SDG Indicator 4.1.1, which focuses on how countries can use existing data to set develop projections and benchmarks for the percentage of children reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Continue reading

Our New Year’s resolution for 2020: Let Data Be Our Guide

By Dankert Vedeler, Chair of the Governing Board of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), and Advisor to the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research / Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The countdown has begun, with just a decade to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal on education (SDG 4): a quality education for all. After so many years devoted to education at the national and international levels, my resolution for 2020 is simple: Let data be your guide. Continue reading

With the Right Data, We Can Still Reach the World’s Education Goal

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

SDG 4 Data Digest 2019 explores the data methodologies needed to track progress and better direct policies and resources

It is not too late to reach the world’s education goal. At least, not yet. In 2015, United Nations Member States promised to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4 – a quality education for all – by 2030. We are now one-third of the way through the timeframe for its achievement, and it is still possible – just about – to meet the deadline. But without accurate, current and comparable data on education, and without a shift from ‘business as usual’ approaches to the provision and quality of education, the goal could soon be beyond our grasp.

Today, around 258 million children are out of school, according to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). If we continue on our current trajectory, one in every six children aged 6 to 17 will still be out of school in 2030 and only six out of ten youth will complete secondary education.

Our data also show that being in school is not enough to guarantee a quality education. According to our estimates, 55% of children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and 60% are not reaching these levels in mathematics. Continue reading

Making Disability Visible: How to Generate More and Better Data on Education for Children with Disabilities

By Friedrich Huebler, Head of Education Standards and Methodology at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), and Stuart Cameron, Thematic Lead on Equity and Inclusion, Global Partnership for Education (GPE)

Two new data resources launched today focus on people with disabilities who are so often disadvantaged and ‘invisible’ when it comes to education. Excluded and uncounted, they are often missing not only from the world’s classrooms, but also from education data. Continue reading