What is data really about? It's about people.
Putting data to work for policymaking and monitoring processes
Data gathering is an integral part of the European Training Foundation’s work, providing useful metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of education and training policies, as well as to provide evidence that can influence policymaking decisions. Statistical data can also prompt robust action to reverse a negative trend or propel forward a positive trend that research has highlighted.
A pertinent example is in Albania, when the authorities started collecting data on the educational sector that identified the level of school drop-outs. The data gathering was simple – count the number of students leaving compulsory education – and while it did highlight a failure in the system, it did not indicate why this phenomenon was happening.
Show us the data
“It was a catchy indicator, which ministers could understand and was politically very relevant,” said Carmo Gomes, a Senior HCD (Human Capital Development) Expert at the ETF leading the Osnabruck Declaration and Vocational Education and Training (VET) Recommendation Integrated Monitoring Framework 2021-2025 in Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey.
As a result of seeing this level of early school leavers, Albania worked to amend the issue, achieving positive reversals over the past years.
“Through a combination of measures, Albania achieved results,” she said.
Gomes said that at a basic level, such data can enable politicians to address a problem and then show they have improved a negative outcome.
“A minister of education can for example use an indicator to say, we had 20% dropouts before my mandate, and that has now been reduced by 5 percentage points as we have done this and that,” she said.
Targets for 2030
Albania’s data collection was prompted by the European Education Area and the 2030 strategic framework for education and training, which was adopted by the Council of the European Union in 2021.
The framework sets new objectives for education and training by 2030 to provide a reference for a European average performance. This is being done by using comparable data, with five of the seven objectives using statistical monitoring. (Two of the objectives, work-based learning and adult training, are to be monitored by the European Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS) through a re-designed methodology).
The framework highlighted the progress made between 2009/10 and 2020: participation in early childhood education rose from 90.3% to 95.3%; the early school leaving rate decreased from 13.8% to 10.1%; tertiary educational attainment rose from 32.6% to 40.9%; and the employment rate for upper secondary and university leavers reached 80.9%, up from 78% in 2009. The framework also showed the shortfalls through data: the participation rate of adults in lifelong learning rose to 9.2% in 2020 from 7.8% in 2010, but was behind the set target of 15%.
“All these statistics and quantitative targets make a difference when politicians sit around a table to make decisions for a country. On top of this, it enables institutions like the European Commission and others to adopt declarations and frameworks. There is always a point in such decisions to monitor or collect data for steering a reform process. It is kind of a given as it’s part of the usual machinery of the EU, since the Copenhagen Process has started,” said Gomes.
In addition to the 2030 Framework, data is being gathered under the EU’s Council recommendation on VET and the Osnabrück declaration, linked in 2020 with a new set of policy priorities for VET sector reforms for 2021-25. In addition to EU member states, the candidate countries from the Western Balkans and Turkey signed up to the reforms.
“Governments had a very tough discussion to agree on only three indicators (related to VET). The other strategic documents set the benchmark indicators. As this is a European Council recommendation, countries have to put measures in place to achieve targets. All countries will have to report, and the data matters,” said Gomes.
Keeping data relevant
One of the struggles with gathering data for indicators is to be relevant at a technical as well as political level. “There needs to be specific figures or targets that improve the lives of people, not just to be numbers,” said Gomes.
Regarding the Osnabruck Declaration and VET recommendation, Gomes said the aim is to ensure that data also matters for policymakers. “What we have is political, with a group of policy objectives up to 2025, but at the same time are linked to quantitative indicators,” she explained.
At the country level, progress is monitored through National Implementation Plans (NIPs), with the outcomes to be assessed in 2025. Countries can also add to the three indicators with national indicators.
Gomes stresses that the national indicators will not be forcibly used as cross-country indicators. “It is important that data is contextualised when it comes to the challenges of a specific country,” she said. “For us, the monitoring of the Osnabruck Declaration makes a good combination of giving room to countries to explain how they’re improving, and how they are meeting the targets agreed by all the countries or are nation-specific.”
With regards to data, what is asked is of crucial importance, to enable more of a ‘deep dive’ for better analysis and policymaking decisions.
Gomes gave the example of an indicator of the number of educational qualifications being developed. She said that while this was an important step in reform, “what is more interesting to measure is how many programmes are being delivered at schools to these (qualification) standards. There is a more complex way of looking at indicators, instead of focusing on the more easy or obvious.”
Some of the measures being asked as part of the goals to reach over the next few years include the percentage of students exposed to work-based learning (WBL). While this sounds straightforward enough, it is proving harder to implement than in a country like Germany, which has a well-established WBL system that is monitored. “In other countries, particularly candidate countries, they don’t have this well placed WBL system. When you ask about the number of students exposed in VET to WBL, it is still very difficult to get accurate and reliable information,” she said.
To ameliorate the issue, WBL was included in Eurostat’s labour force survey. “This way there can be an indicator that can be compared across countries with the same methodology and approach,” said Gomes.
Ultimately, said Gomes, data is not all about statistics “but about the people that have benefited from a programme, and how their lives have changed.”