The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is launching the SDG 4 Data Digest 2018: Data to Nurture Learning, which demonstrates how data can contribute to improve learning, as ministers and policymakers gather at the Global Education Meeting in Brussels to take stock of progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on quality education for all.

Inequality in education is high on the agenda in Brussels but, as the UIS points out, it cannot be tackled without robust monitoring to track whether children, adolescents and adults are gaining the skills they need. This monitoring is vital, given the current global learning crisis, with 617 million – or six out of ten – children and adolescents worldwide unable to read a simple sentence or handle a basic mathematics calculation, according to UIS data. One-third of these children and adolescents are out of school and urgently need access to the education that is their right. But two-thirds of them are actually in school.

“Far from being hidden away or hard to reach, these children are sitting in classrooms, waiting for schools to deliver the quality education they have been promised,” says Silvia Montoya, UIS Director. “That promise has been broken far too often.”

This matters, given the critical importance of learning for the achievement of all SDGs, from reducing poverty to tackling gender discrimination and building healthy, peaceful societies. The Digest raises concerns about how these goals can be reached by the 2030 deadline if significant numbers of people continue to lack basic skills.

The Digest explores the internationally-comparable data needed to reduce inequalities and ensure the lifelong learning envisaged by SDG 4, recognising that learning does not start and end at the school gates. It shows the way forward to monitor learning right from early childhood education to adult literacy programmes. Special focus is given to initiatives designed to track learning in the critical years of primary and lower secondary education, as well as the digital skills that are increasingly vital for employment in the 21st century.

The Digest highlights positive progress, with the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) supporting national strategies for learning assessments and developing internationally-comparable indicators and methodological tools to measure progress towards SDG 4. It also provides tools and methodologies to help countries make informed decisions about the types of assessments that will meet their own needs, as well as guidance on participating in assessments and building the human capacity to improve learning outcomes through the effective use of data.

Making a strong investment case, the Digest argues for a shift in perspectives about the perceived costs of learning assessments from both donors and governments. Participation in major international or region-wide assessments can cost each country roughly $500,000 every four years, which seems like a major expense for a smaller economy. However, it is minor when set against the overall cost of providing schooling, and the even greater cost of a lack of education. The UIS estimates that solid data on learning to gauge whether approaches are working or whether reforms are needed could improve education spending efficiency by 5%, saving $30 million each year in the average country and paying for the cost assessments hundreds of times over.