Why we need a revolution in global education data

By Julia Gillard, outgoing chair of the Global Partnership for Education

I went into my time at GPE (Global Partnership for Education) very focused on education data.

I came out of my domestic experience as (Australian) Minister for Education quite proud of the fact that amongst the many changes we’d introduced had been a huge data transparency project. Now, for every Australian school, you can see freely available online the standards being achieved in a school, so you can profoundly ask yourself a series of questions about what is making the difference to education outcomes.

Having done that work, I was very convinced when I started my journey at GPE that we did need to see a revolution on data in international education.

What I underestimated of course is how difficult that is to do, to imagine a world in which we could get real-time and comparable education quality data from very different settings.

I underestimated the capacity constraints and those capacity constraints continue, unfortunately, to speak loudly.

But I also underestimated how contentious much of this data work would be.

I think whilst we can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of the capacity constraints, we can and we should take a profound step forward in the international debate about the ability of everyone to access the data.

What are, I think, the things that are holding us back? Number one, let’s be frank, is that transparent data makes people accountable and it is a natural human instinct to try and shield yourself from that kind of accountability.

But we have got to be fierce enough with ourselves to put ourselves in that moment and to hold ourselves accountable.

Second I think there are a whole lot of education debates in high-income countries which we have uplifted into the global debate and we pretend that they matter everywhere when they don’t.

I think many of our debates about crowded curriculum, teaching to the test and the like are debates that do not have global application and we should not pretend that they do.

We are very hard-wired to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, it is impossible to get perfect education data each time and every time but we can get and we should be able to get at least one galvanizing metric that we can look at globally to help up incentivise change.

To give an example from the health community, maternal mortality rates have been tracked now very clearly, globally and country-by-country. You can get a long-term trend line now on maternal mortality rates.

Now, does the maternal mortality rate tell you everything about a healthcare system? Clearly not. Does the maternal mortality rate tell you everything about female empowerment within a country? Clearly not. But the trend line tells you something.

It tells you something if maternal mortality rates are consistently going down, it tells you something if they are consistently going up and it tells you something if there’s been a sharp change in either direction. That bellwether can enable you to go in to investigate what is going on.

I think it is our responsibility to find that galvanising metric for education.

The World Bank has been advocating for reading at 10 years of age. Others would put different metrics, but at the end of the day we need to settle and we need to get on with it so that we can as an education community respond in a more agile fashion in real-time.

Second, and very importantly, we can speak to the world in a way that is digestible to the world about what is happening in education.

Let’s face it, one of our great strengths is our expertise, but one of our great challenges, when we come to talk to others outside the education community, is that we don’t speak their language. 

When I was first at GPE, I sat in many meetings where after about 15 minutes  I’d have to say to myself I now have no idea what anybody is talking about – and I had been a Minister for Education. So, just how dense and impenetrable much of our language is, I think, a challenge we need to work our way through, and a galvanizing metric would do that. 

Taken from Julia Gillard’s address on Oct 7th 2021 at A Yidan Prize Foundation and University of Cambridge conference on “Creating an Equitable Future Through Education.”