Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

The Difficulty with Data

10 January 2017

By Jamie Weiss-Yagoda

How many children are out of school in crisis settings? This is a central question underpinning our work in education in emergencies. It provides us with an understanding of how many children we must aim to reach, and gives a benchmark against which to measure our progress towards getting all kids in school. But despite many admirable efforts, we still lack a precise answer.

We know the needs are vast and complex, but face significant challenges to collecting reliable data. As a result, we find data to often be confusing, flawed or incomplete. Organizations use different criteria for determining the number of children out of school, such as for age range and contexts, resulting in inconsistencies that make comparisons near impossible. Statistics are often vague and opaque, and may be misinterpreted as a result. Although securing this particular statistic is difficult, and efforts towards it are laudable, the education in emergencies field can and should do better.


Three figures stand out as illustrating the scale of the problem with out-of-school children globally and the particular challenges faced by refugee children:

  1. 263 million children and youth (ages 6-17) are out of school globally. (UIS and UNESCO, 2016).
  2. More than 60% of all school-aged refugees (ages 5-17)—3.7 million out of 6 million-- have no access to school (UNHCR, 2016).
  3. Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children (UNHCR, 2016).

While meaningful and informative, these numbers tell part of the story. The first stat—which further analysis shows represents nearly 20% of all children aged 6-17 globally—excludes children aged five, who are included as part of the school-aged population in the UNHCR stats that follow. The UNHCR stats include only refugees under their mandate, thereby excluding internally displaced children.  


The following statistic specific to crisis-affected children is cited widely and frequently:

  • 75 million school-aged children (ages 3-18) in crisis-affected contexts are in need of educational support. (ODI, 2016).

This comes from commendable calculations done by ODI that looked at the number of children within a larger age range in 35 emergency-affected countries, and estimated what proportion are likely to live in crisis-affected regions. Nevertheless, being “in need of educational support” is vague and refers to a range of issues, including being out of school, being at risk of dropping out or facing quality issues—which also can be broadly defined. So while this tells us about the number of children and youth in crisis who are likely to face a range of educational barriers, it still does not tell us how many are out of school.  


Recent data from UIS and UNESCO goes one step further to provide a precise figure:

  • Approximately 62.5 million children and youth (ages 6-17) in areas within 32 conflict-affected countries are out of school (UIS and UNESCO, 2016).

This stat seems much more illuminating—that is, until you start to dig a layer deeper. UIS and UNESCO have not published which countries are included in this statistic, nor the criteria for determining what constitutes “conflict-affected” areas. The number looks only at conflict contexts, excluding other types of crises such as natural disasters or health emergencies. Lastly, the report states that the out-of-school children referenced live in “areas in 32 countries affected by armed conflict,” (p. 4; emphasis mine); however, when this same stat appears in the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), it states these numbers refer to children in “conflict-affected countries,” (p. 104; emphasis mine). Although the GEMR’s interpretation is accurate, it makes the stat less clear, leading readers to question whether these out-of-school children are directly affected by conflict, or simply living in countries that experience conflict in some parts.

The IRC works exclusively in conflict and crisis-affected countries. Without reliable, specific data, we and our partners do not have a clear global target of the number of children who need our support, who they are, where they live, and what their specific educational needs are.

When it comes to achieving critical statistics like the number of crisis-affected children who are out of school, we can and must do better. I do not mean to underestimate the significant challenges of doing so. But we owe it to the children we serve to demand this and to try our best to achieve it.

Generating more accurate and timely data will require significant investments in research and the statistical capacity to collect and analyze reliable data. It necessitates governments, donors and humanitarian actors working together to build a more systematic, robust and transparent way of counting the number of children who are out of school and sharing and communicating this information. Together, we need to agree to common criteria and indicators to determine what constitutes being out-of-school—that is, looking not only at enrollment numbers, but attendance and retention rates.

Donors need to direct funding towards humanitarian programs that include research and learning to uncover not only who is out of school, but why. And once we have data on the challenge before us, we need to invest rigorously in learning what works to change this—how to ensure these children are attending school regularly, safe, and learning the academic and social-emotional skills they need for success in school and beyond.

Having clear facts that illustrate the extent to which crisis-affected children struggle for access to quality education, and sharing this information publicly and widely, can help raise awareness of the need for education in emergencies and catalyze further investments to learn not only about the problem, but about solutions.


I invite you to comment and share your thoughts on the following:

  • What challenges does your organization face in collecting, analyzing and/or using data?
  • How are you addressing these challenges?
  • What are ways to collectively solve this challenge in our field?


Jamie Weiss-Yagoda is the Education Policy Advisor at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), based in New York. Previously, she served as the IRC’s Education Program Manager, the Associate Director for Outreach at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a teacher, trainer, and curriculum developer both domestically and internationally. Jamie holds a Bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University and a Master's in International Educational Development from Teachers College, Columbia University.