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Mind the gap(s): Are we seeing the full picture of children’s skill development?

27 Oct 2021
Mind the gap(s): Are we seeing the full picture of children’s skill development?

By Haogen Yao, Anna Alejo, Bassem Nasir, Rachel Cooper

More than four-fifths of countries lack the data to provide a baseline on the full range of skills children and youth need to thrive in school, work and life. UNICEF uses a fivefold typology for the development of broad, interconnected skills : 1) foundational skills, such as basic literacy and numeracy; 2) transferable skills, or ‘life skills’ such as problem-solving, negotiation and critical thinking; 3) digital skills, which allow individuals to use and understand technology; 4) job-specific skills, also known as technical and vocational skills that support older adolescents’ transition into the workforce; and 5) entrepreneurial skills, which support business and social entrepreneurship (Figure 1).

Figure 1. UNICEF’s skills typology

Aiming towards more comprehensive measures of skill development, UNICEF has begun mapping available assessments on these five types of skills. The mapping exercise identified large-scale assessments, including household surveys and databases, that: a) measured at least one of the five skills categories; b) were administered within the last 10 years; and c) had data publicly available. Information such as category of skill(s) measured, participating countries and target population were collected to create an inventory of assessments. This allowed us to see where data may be lacking across countries, skill categories and age groups.

What gaps do we find? Within the last 10 years, only 38 of 224 countries and territories (17 per cent) have reported data on all five skills categories, while 48 countries and territories (21 per cent) do not have data on any of the five skills. Data gaps are especially prevalent among low-income countries, few of which have participated in large-scale assessments beyond foundational skills measurement. As a result, only 5 per cent of all low- and lower-middle-income countries have data available on all five skills (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Data availability across countries and territories

Note: This map is stylized and not to scale. It does not reflect a position by UNICEF on the legal status of any country or territory or the delimitation of any frontiers.

Across skills categories, three-quarters of countries have data on foundational skills, but only about half have data on digital skills and a fifth have data on job-specific skills. Data availability also varies by age group: for instance, a third of countries have data on transferable skills for children of secondary school age, but only 7 per cent have the same for those of primary school age (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Data availability by skill category and age group

Gaps are also seen in most assessments’ exclusion of out-of-school children, for whom outcomes may be far worse. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment for Development (PISA-D), which includes in-school and out-of-school assessments comparable with the main PISA, reveal exceptionally poor outcomes for participating countries (Figure 4). More than half of 15-year-olds in these countries have dropped out of school before completing basic education. Understanding where out-of-school children are in their skills development will be especially crucial as school closures brought by COVID-19 pose a significant risk of dropout.

Figure 4. Percentage of 15-year-olds achieving minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics, PISA-D and PISA 2018

Source: PISA 2018 and PISA for Development databases.

Note: Percentages of 15-year-olds achieving minimum proficiency was computed as a weighted average of the percentage of students performing at Level 2 or above and that of youth not enrolled in school performing at Level 2 or above. The OECD average is a student average.

Lastly, areas such as transferable and job-specific skills are often only partially addressed by existing assessments. Compared to foundational skills, assessing transferable and job-specific skills is less straightforward, with no single approach or tool to measure these skills. Existing large-scale assessments like the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) and PISA provide insight into a few select transferable skills such as civic participation and perspective-taking, but they may not fully capture other core social and emotional skills. Similarly, as skills requirements differ from job to job, no single assessment of job-specific skills may apply across all occupations. Participation rates in technical-vocational education and training can give some indication of how many might be acquiring job-specific skills, but this does not tell us about the quality or relevance of skills development in these activities.

To help fill some of these gaps, the development of alternative measures for these various skills are now underway. Emerging efforts include the Foundational Learning Skills and Mass Media and ICT modules in UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), and the Life Skills and Citizenship Education (LSCE) measurement tool co-developed by UNICEF and the World Bank. The LSCE tool, currently being finalized, aims to provide a standardized approach to measuring proficiency in 12 core life skills.

It is essential that we continue tracking the development of the various skills children need to thrive in today’s world, especially with the new skills required to adapt to digital learning. This is what we envision through Reimagine Education, an initiative to end the learning crisis by connecting every child and young person to world-class digital learning solutions that help build a broad range of skills for a better future. We must work towards closing the data gaps to ensure all children are set up for success in school, work and life.

Download the 1-page infographic on data gap for tracking the full range of skills.

Anna Alejo is an education consultant and Haogen Yao, Bassem Nasir, and Rachel Cooper are education specialists at UNICEF New York Headquarters.