Knowledge is power: ensuring quality early childhood education and care provision

by Ineke Litjens
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Leaving a child at a nursery, crèche, pre-school or day care centre for the first time can be a daunting experience for a parent. While the small child’s tears may soon turn to laughter as they play with new toys and meet new friends, the parent may sit at home or at work checking their phone and worrying that their child is not being well looked after.

This is a reality for an increasing number of parents as more and more children participate in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings, partly due to the extension of legal entitlements to a place, free access, and subsidised parental fees or provision. This increased participation has led to governments, as well as parents, taking a keen interest in the quality of provision, because quality is key to ensuring benefits for young children, particularly those with disadvantaged backgrounds. In high quality learning environments, children develop a good basis for social, basic literacy and numeracy skills which are important for future educational success.

An essential part of making sure that all children receive high quality early childhood education and care is to monitor the providers of this care. Understanding whether provisions meet the regulations and standards, how staff are performing, and how children are developing can inform policy makers and identify where improvements are needed. This information also informs parents about the level of quality provided, allowing them to make informed decisions about their choice of provision.

The latest report in the OECD’s Starting Strong series reviews the monitoring systems of 24 jurisdictions and reveals that monitoring does not merely encompass regulatory compliance but is moving towards better understanding what is happening inside an ECEC setting and how a child develops in several areas:

  • Service and staff quality: These are the most commonly monitored areas, and are usually monitored through inspections or self-evaluations. Monitoring of these aspects is often mandatory and mainly focuses on regulatory aspects such as staff-child ratios, group size and staff qualifications or curriculum implementation. 
  • Child development and outcomes: These are mostly monitored through observations rather than tests as used in primary and secondary schools. Monitoring children’s early development has a broad, holistic focus, concentrating on language and literacy skills, as well as socio-emotional, motor and health development. 
  • Staff and child interaction: Interest is growing in monitoring process quality to ensure the quality of interaction between staff and children, to improve staff practices and identify staff training needs. 

In addition, we found that early childhood monitoring is frequently aligned with the primary school monitoring system, which allows a more continuous early childhood development experience, and because tools used in monitoring practices are usually decided at the local level, actual practices differ between regions or even provisions. Lastly, results of monitoring quality, at least for aggregated results, are often shared with the general public, resulting in more transparency.

The increase in monitoring activities across countries is a positive move. But monitoring and evaluating quality can be a complex task. Starting Strong IV highlights some key aspects to keep in mind when designing or revising monitoring systems:

  1. Clarify the purposes for monitoring: This ensures all people involved are “on the same path” in terms of objectives and consequences. 
  2. Develop a coherent monitoring framework for different settings: This ensures an even level of quality and can contribute to better transitions for children moving between different settings. 
  3. Link monitoring of staff quality to professional development: Training as a result of staff evaluation can lead to quality improvements and better staff practices for child development. Don’t allow monitoring efforts to go to waste!
  4. Do not underestimate the demands of monitoring on staff: Keep in mind that monitoring requires time and increases staff members’ workload and stress. 
  5. Value the voices of staff, parents and children: Different points of view are important in understanding how quality and performance is perceived, and may provide some valuable insights into the strengths and challenges of the system. 

“Knowledge is power” is an often-used phrase, but when it comes to making sure that children have the best start in life, it is a phrase that rings true. Through knowing which systems are working well and what makes them work well, governments can ensure that high quality childcare is provided, and parents can be empowered to make informed decisions that will help put them at ease when leaving their child for the first time.

Photo credit: ©

The innovation imperative and the design of learning systems

by David Istance
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Education has become increasingly important worldwide, including politically. Probably the key driver for this is economic – the fundamental role of knowledge and skills in underpinning and maintaining prosperity. No argument has more political purchase today regarding education’s value than that it enhances competitiveness. These developments create an appetite for reform and innovation, often manifest as favouring “learning” over “education”, and a readiness to disrupt accepted institutional arrangements as too slow to change, too inward-looking, and too detached from the economic shifts taking place globally and locally.

This represents a very different starting point for innovation compared with the longstanding educational ambition to realise more holistic opportunities and promote individual development. From this perspective, the problem is not that the institutions of education are too detached from the economy, but that they are too close, and are pulled to narrow their curricula and instil only superficial knowledge and not deep understanding. The charge is also that education systems are profoundly inequitable, too driven by sorting and selecting and not organised for the optimisation of learning.

There is another constituency with an interest in innovation. Innovating learning environments offer a far more promising route for enhancing the attractiveness of teaching than backward-looking definitions of professionalism seen as the right of the individual teacher to be left undisturbed in his or her own classroom.

The differences of the critiques and constituencies notwithstanding, they coalesce around the urgent need to innovate the fundamentals of schooling: to address the low visibility of teacher work and their isolation in highly fragmented classroom arrangements, the low engagement of too many of the main players (especially students), conformity and highly unequal learning outcomes.

Some 26 school systems (countries, regions, networks) participated in the final part of the OECD Innovative Learning Environments project by submitting their own initiatives for innovating learning beyond single schools or organisations. The synthesis report that emerged from this project, Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems, is published today.

The report summarises the strategies that lead to innovation as a series of Cs: culture change; clarifying focus; creating professional capacity; collaboration and co-operation; communication technologies and platforms; and change agents.

The book emphasises the importance of design, and for that read “leadership”. In complex school systems, leadership can include many more actors – such as community players, families and foundations – besides those usually involved in designing curricula and classrooms. Government leadership remains fundamental, however, because of its legitimacy, breadth and capacity to unlock resources. Governments have a privileged role in starting and sustaining change, and in regulating, incentivising and accelerating it. But this does not have to mean “micro-managing”.

For example, New Zealand’s “Learning and Change Networks” is a government-initiated strategy to establish a web of knowledge-sharing networks among schools, families, teachers, leaders, communities, professional providers and the Ministry of Education. Network participants work collaboratively to accelerate student achievement in grades 1 to 8 and address equity issues.

Austria’s “New Secondary School” reform was initiated by the government in 2008 and has since been mandated to be phased in completely by 2018. It is introduced in individual schools through school-based change agents (Lerndesigners) who themselves work collaboratively as networks. The recently established National Center for Learning Schools provides materials and organisation for these change agents.

The report elaborates what an innovative learning environment would look like, not just in individual schools but across a whole system. For example, schools and classrooms would be characterised by the “buzz” of collegial activity and have many students learning outside conventional classrooms; learner voice would be prominent, including in leadership, right across school systems; educators would discuss and practice learning strategies collaboratively, and personalise these strategies for individual learners; learners and educators would use digital resources and social media innovatively for teaching, learning and professional exchanges; there would be a dominant practice of self-review and use of evidence to inform design; and there would be dense networks of collaboration across districts, networks, chains and communities of practice.

How interesting it would be to be able to measure progress towards this vision, to supplement the more conventional education statistics and indicators!

Photo credit: © Inmagine LTD

It’s a matter of self-confidence

by Francesca Borgonovi
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

A sense of self-efficacy is essential if students are to fulfil their potential. Yet too many students, particularly disadvantaged students, do not have confidence in their ability to tackle mathematics tasks. This month's
PISA in Focus reveals that mathematics self-efficacy is strongly associated with mathematics performance, and that disadvantaged students are less likely to feel confident about their ability to tackle specific mathematics tasks than advantaged students, even when comparing students who perform similarly in mathematics.

Countries with higher mean performance in mathematics are those where students are more likely to report feeling confident about being able to solve a range of pure and applied mathematics problems. However, a positive relationship can also be seen within countries: students who have less mathematics self-efficacy perform worse in mathematics than students who are confident about their ability to handle mathematics tasks. On average across OECD countries, mathematics self-efficacy is associated with a difference of 49 score points in mathematics – the equivalent of one year of school. In 23 countries and economies, the difference in mathematics performance that is associated with students’ self-efficacy is 50 points or more; in Liechtenstein, Chinese Taipei and Viet Nam, the difference is at least 60 points.

The relationship between mathematics self-efficacy and mathematics performance is mutually reinforcing: better performance in mathematics leads to greater self-efficacy. But students who have less mathematics self-efficacy are at greater risk of underperforming in mathematics, regardless of their actual abilities. Why? Because when students do not believe in their ability to accomplish particular tasks, they do not exert the effort needed to complete the tasks successfully.

How can education systems and families encourage students to be proficient and self-confident in their abilities in mathematics?

First, families can help students to become confident learners by giving them support and encouragement. In 2012, 11 education systems distributed a questionnaire to the parents of students who took the PISA test. The responses to this questionnaire reveal that, when comparing students with similar academic performance and socio-economic status, those whose parents expected that they would enter university generally reported greater mathematics self-efficacy than those whose parents did not hold such high expectations for them.

Second, PISA reveals that there is a strong connection between how confident students feel about being able to solve specific pure and applied mathematics problems, and whether or not they were exposed to similar problems in class. However, while almost all students who reported that they had frequently encountered pure mathematics problems feel confident about solving such problems, task exposure is less strongly associated with self-efficacy when it comes to applied mathematics. This difference could be due to the fact that applied mathematics problems are, by nature, more ambiguous and diverse, and solving applied mathematics problems generally requires a good understanding of both the underlying problem and the context in which the problem is set.

What PISA tells us is that, in mathematics, seeing (mathematics tasks at school) is believing (in yourself).

PISA in Focus No. 56: How confident are students in their ability to solve mathematics problems? Francesca Borgonovi
PISA á la loupe No. 56: Quelle confiance les élèves ont-ils en leur capacité à résoudre des problèmes de mathématiques?
PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn (Vol. III) Student's Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
PISA 2012 Results
Photo Credit: Schoolgirl with glasses solving math problem on blackboard @Shutterstock

Does social background thwart aspirations for higher education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Percentage of students who expect to complete a university degree, by socio-economic status (ESCS*), PISA 2009

Since the mid-1900s, the expansion of higher education systems has opened up opportunities for many students other than those from the elites. Higher education became the main route towards upward social mobility. Many countries designed policies to support more socially equitable, or “democratic”, access to universities, mainly by developing financial support mechanisms that compensate students from less well-off families for the study and opportunity costs associated with further education. It was seen as an essential characteristic of democracy that meritocratic access to higher education for talented and capable youth was ensured.

We now know that the social and political benefits that were expected to result from widening access to higher education were grossly overstated. In many countries, talented individuals from the middle classes and, exceptionally, the lower classes gained access to universities and benefitted from social mobility. Universities were transformed from elite schools to modern educational institutions, preparing large numbers of students for professional careers. But the expansion of the system, in itself, did not equalise education opportunities; many on the bottom rungs of the social ladder remain deprived of access to high-quality university education.

The recently published Education Indicators in Focus brief synthesises the international data currently available on the impact of social background on access to and success in higher education. The data are sobering: on average across countries that participated in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), an individual with a parent who completed higher education is 4.5 times more likely to attend university than an individual whose parents have below upper secondary education as their highest level of educational attainment. In some countries, like Italy and Poland, the odds that a student with highly educated parents will attend university is almost ten times higher than for a child of low-educated parents; in the United States, the likelihood is nearly seven times greater. By contrast, in Canada, Korea, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, a young person with highly educated parents is less than three times as likely to attend university as a peer with low-educated parents.

For a long time the dominant opinion among policy makers was that unequal access to higher education was mainly a financial issue. Poorer families lacked the financial means to invest in longer and more expensive education. Policies thus concentrated on providing free access and public funding to universities, and on financial support mechanisms for students from poor families. But as governments need to prioritise public expenditure in a context of austerity and fiscal constraints, these policies come under increasing pressure.

Financial compensation is now perceived as an inefficient public policy instrument to encourage talented individuals from poor families to enrol in higher education. Also, a better understanding of the high private return on investment in higher education, and the perception that public funding for higher education is an organised transfer of wealth, have prompted a shift in public policy towards private expenditure, which now accounts for 32% of total expenditure on higher education. Even if countries still use financial incentives and support mechanisms to guarantee access to deserving students from poorer backgrounds, these policy instruments are no longer regarded as the only, or the best, vehicles for ensuring equality of opportunity in higher education.

Recent research offers other insights. First, unequal access is the result of cultural rather than financial mechanisms. Second, inequality at the gates of the university is the culmination of a long process of socially biased selection from the very beginning of formal education. The expansion of higher education might have changed the values and preferences in the middle classes towards a more meritocratic and achievement-oriented view, but that has not yet happened among the lowest classes.

PISA provides ample evidence of the strong impact of socio-economic status on learning outcomes, achievement and motivation of 15-year-old students. The chart above provides a powerful representation of this. Based on PISA 2009 data, it shows the huge disparity in expectations to complete a university degree among 15-year-old students from different social backgrounds. Even after accounting for reading and mathematics performance, the difference in expectations remains large.

Personal motivation and aspirations are much more difficult to address through policy than financial barriers. The risk is that governments might see the challenge as simply too big and too complicated to handle, especially at a time when concerns about over-schooling and overcrowded universities prevail. At the same time, governments underestimate the hidden cost of socially skewed higher education. Leaving reservoirs of human capital untapped comes at a high economic and social price. Not only is it morally unfair, but it is a serious threat to the inclusiveness of modern societies.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 35, by Corinne Heckmann and Camila De Moraes
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database
*ESCS refers to the PISA index of economics, social and cultural status. See Volume II of the PISA 2012 Results for more information. Countries are ranked in descending order of percentage of students with a low ESCS who expect to complete a university degree. Source: OECD (2012), Grade Expectations: How Marks and Education Policies Shape Students'Ambitions, PISA