Why do we bother with qualifications?

by Simon Field
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

After all, they are just pieces of paper with fancy script and impressive-looking designs, and employers are surely interested in what people can actually do – their skills – rather than pieces of paper? A new OECD study, entitled Building Skills for All, A Review of England casts a spotlight on this question.

Qualifications are useful because they make skills visible. It is confidently assumed that the holder of a school-leaving certificate can read and understand instructions, and make calculations, and that those with university degrees can do much more. This confidence allows employers and others to decide how to make the best use of the skills of the labour force.

In England, as in many countries, young people have more qualifications than ever before. Hopefully that means progress. But surveys of literacy and numeracy, like the new 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, sometimes cloud this rosy vision. In England, although young people aged 16-24 have many more and better qualifications than those aged 55-65, their basic skills are no better. That is something of a surprise, because in most other OECD countries educational progress, in the sense of more qualifications, also corresponds to better basic skills.

The study of England defines the low-skilled as those below level 2 in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – these are people who very often would find it difficult to understand the instructions on an aspirin packet, or estimate how much petrol remains in the tank after looking at the gauge – basic life skills rather than technical tasks. Roughly one third of those aged 16-19 have low skills by this definition, three times more than the strongest performers, such as the Netherlands, where only one in ten of the same age group have low skills. England’s active programme of school reform, and more recently a set of measures to address literacy and numeracy weaknesses in this age group is therefore very much needed, and it has far to go.

Coming back to qualifications, how many people with good qualifications have low skills?  Across many OECD countries, it is striking how many university graduates have relatively low levels of literacy and numeracy. In England one in ten university students have low skills – far too many. But in some ways this is not a surprise. Looked at across countries England stands out from the crowd: despite weak skills among the teenagers  that aspire to enter university, the entrance rate to universities is high.

Qualifications do have a point, but that means they need to reliably signal skills. Employers need reassurance that qualified young people, including university graduates, have adequate literacy and numeracy. This report argues that, in England, this calls for a rethink, particularly on the role of university education. With a bit of effort, qualifications might come to mean a whole lot more.

Building Skills for All: A Review of England
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)

Photo Credit: White Gas Gauge Illustration @Shutterstock

Joining the battle against extremism

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Whoever has a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Those in the security business tend to see the answer to radicalism and terrorism in military might, and those in the financial business in cutting flows of money. So it is only natural for educators to view the struggle against radicalism and terrorism as a battle for hearts and minds. It was no surprise, then, that the roughly 90 education ministers who gathered at this year’s Education World Forum in London, repeatedly touched on this issue.

But the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have brought home that it is far too simplistic to depict extremists and terrorists as victims of poverty or poor qualifications. More research on the background and biographies of extremists and terrorists is badly needed, but it is clear that these people often do not come from the most impoverished parts of societies. Radicals are also found among young people from middle-class families who have ticked all the boxes when it comes to formal education. And ironically, those terrorists seem to be well equipped with the entrepreneurial, creative, global and collaborative social skills that we often promote as the goal of modern education.

But that’s no reason to give up on education as the most powerful tool for building a fairer and more humane and inclusive world. We know that individual trajectories towards extremism flourish in environments that lack social inclusion, well-being and social cohesion. Young people become receptive to extremist ideas when their self-image, self-confidence and interpersonal trust are threatened by fragmented identities and conflicting world views. There is also a clear linkage between countries’ relative success in integrating and educating migrant children and the prevalence of extremism.

Our recent publication, Immigrant Students at School suggests that, certainly in that area, public policy can make a major difference. It highlights how some countries do so much better than others not just in equipping disadvantaged and migrant children with strong academic skills, but also at fostering social integration among these groups. Nine out of ten Norwegian 15-year-old students with an immigrant background say they feel they belong at school, while fewer than 4 out of 10 French migrant students say so. The well-being of immigrant students is affected not just by cultural differences between the country of origin and the host country, but also by how schools and communities help immigrant students deal with the daily problems of living, learning and communicating.

But is that enough to fight radicalism and terrorism? Again, having good academic and social skills doesn’t seem to prevent people from using those skills to destroy, rather than advance, their societies. It comes down to the heart of education: teaching the values that can give students a reliable compass and the tools to navigate with confidence through an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world.

Of course, that is difficult territory. To make one’s way through it, one has to strike a balance between strengthening common values in societies, such as respect and tolerance, that cannot be compromised, and appreciating the diversity of our societies and the plurality of values that diversity engenders. Leaning too far in either direction is risky: enforcing an artificial uniformity of values is detrimental to people’s capacity to acknowledge different perspectives; and overemphasising diversity can lead to cultural relativism that questions the legitimacy of any core values.

Several ministers and commentators I spoke with at the World Education Forum commended PISA for its efforts to build metrics to measure “global competency”, a set of skills that enables people to see the world through different eyes and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values. Indeed, one of the most powerful responses to extremism and radicalisation seems the ability to read and understand diversity, while recognising that the core liberal values of our societies, such as tolerance, are the foundations on which this capacity rests.

But there is more to this. Since the end of the Second World War, liberal democracies have engaged confidently in the global battlefield of ideas. But in the 21st century, it seems that ideological hegemony will result from genuine and open dialogue for the common good. Liberal and democratic ideas and values will have to prove their worth against competing world views. This is where education comes in as well. Universities and international schools – and the online learning programmes many of them now offer – are perfect venues in which these ideas and values can be shared and debated. It is therefore important to support and strengthen international education in its role as a global exchange of ideas. The five million international students who cross borders, and often oceans, to get the best possible education, are also champions of intercultural dialogue and global understanding. There could even be many more of them if we invest in education sufficiently to be able to offer attractive opportunities for bright people in countries where the ideological battles for young people’s minds are increasingly fierce and the stakes alarmingly high.

Immigrant Students at School: Easing the Journey towards Integration
Education World Forum
Photo Credit: Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word radicalism.@ Shutterstock

21st Century Children

by Tracey Burns

OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Manuela Fitzpatrick
MA in International Relations at Science Po, Paris.

My son was accepted into film-making camp, and he's only seven years old! I'm so proud. The only problem is that I'm not sure how I will get him there since the twins have their dance class and then empathy workshop on the same afternoon”.
On the phone with my friend, I make polite noises but inside I am thinking: what ever happened to kids having time to run around and just have fun?

What is the nature of modern childhood? Released today, the book Trends Shaping Education 2016 looks at major social, demographic, economic and technological trends affecting the future of education. One important focus: child well-being. 21st century children are in many ways safer and better protected that children from previous generations. Advances in medicine and stricter safety regulations – such as better bicycle helmets and the increased use of seat belts in cars – have led to a steady decrease in child mortality rates across OECD countries. Older, better educated parents are increasingly advocating for their children and playing an active role in their education. New technologies help parents to monitor their children’s location and well-being constantly, and in case of a problem help is just a phone call – or WhatsApp message – away.

However, at the same time as those new technologies help parents stay connected to their children, they also create new risks (for example, cyber-bullying) that can follow them from the school yard into their homes. In fact, there are signs that the modern world has created new stresses for our children that go beyond technology.

Children in the 21st century are more likely to be only children, with fewer opportunities to interact with siblings. Children and adolescents are increasingly pushed to do more by “helicopter parents”, overprotective parents who hover over their children to protect them from potential harm. Children are reporting higher levels of stress and less sleep. Free time to play is decreasing, and there are worries about the reduction of old-fashioned activities (e.g., running around outside) in favour of time spent in front of a computer screen. In addition, (and perhaps not unrelatedly), child obesity is increasing across the OECD, bringing with it a host of potential physical, social and psychological challenges.

How does the transformed nature of childhood in the 21st century affect education? How can teachers and schools work together with parents and communities to protect and guide children while still allowing them to be children, and learn by making mistakes? Schools have a responsibility to be safe places for learning, and teachers are on the front line of monitoring and ensuring their students’ well-being. Yet many countries are struggling to keep up with the changes in modern childhood and new expectations and responsibilities that have emerged.

These are tough issues for education. And child well-being is just one of the topics Trends Shaping Education 2016 covers. The same chapter also provides a snapshot of a number of other trends affecting children and families that education systems must prepare for, including:

• The rise of non-traditional families: The legalisation of same-sex marriage, for example, began in the Netherlands in 2001 and has steadily spread to almost half of the OECD countries since then. Classrooms are now increasingly likely to include students from non-traditional families – a trend that may pose challenges for some schools in ensuring that students and their families feel accepted.
• Youth poverty: The risk of income poverty has shifted over the last four decades from the elderly to the young. In the mid-1980s, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were only 20% more likely than the entire population to be in poverty. By 2013, young adults were 60% more likely than the entire population to be in poverty. Is education doing enough to help those most in need?

• Balancing work and family: The vast majority of OECD countries have maternal leave laws, and as of 2010, 20 OECD countries also implemented parental leave legislation (the possibility of leave for both father and mother). In a world where both parents are likely to work, what is the role of early childhood education and care in ensuring child well-being?

Want to know more? Then pick up a copy of today's new book: the 2016 edition of Trends Shaping Education. In addition to families, other chapters examine global trends such as increasing migration and climate change, national trends on government spending in health and pensions, the key role of cities in our societies as well as technological trends. And if you really feel like testing your knowledge, try the quiz!

Trends Shaping Education 2016
Trends Shaping Education Modern Families Spotlight 
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo Credit: Children Playing Kite Happiness Bonding Friendship Concept @Shutter Stock

Can students be overconnected?

By Francesco Avvisati
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

In the pursuit of happiness, Aristotle famously wrote “Meson te kai ariston”: moderation, staying away from both excess and deficiency, is best. The past weeks of holiday celebrations reminded many of us how there could be too much of even the good things in life, e.g. too much eating and too much drinking.
Similar advice may apply just as well to young people’s use of the Internet. Most 15-year-olds in OECD countries spend at least some time each day wandering through cyberspace as part of their media diet. As this month’s PISA in Focus reports, in 2012, every day or almost every day, a large majority of 15-year-old students (71%, on average across OECD countries) browsed the Internet for fun, e.g. on video-streaming sites, and participated in an online social network (73%). In most OECD countries, more than one in two students reported spending two hours or more on line every day on weekends.

While spending up to about two hours on line every day is the norm, some students consume Internet services (or video games, particularly if they’re boys) for much longer than this. In fact, for quite a few students, the time spent every day on the Internet does not appear to have many limits – apart from the 24 hours that make up a day. On average, about 7% of students in OECD countries reported spending more than six hours on line every day outside of school – including on schooldays. In the Russian Federation and Sweden, one in eight students so reported.

Children gain access to a host of educational resources and engaging experiences through digital devices and the Internet, but concerns are also mounting about the possible harmful consequences of unrestricted Internet use. Children clearly need to be protected from online threats , such as exposure to harmful content or contacts (think pornography or cyber bullying), online fraud or abusive marketing practices, and privacy-related risks, such as identity theft. Many of these risks existed well before the Internet, but measures to protect children from the corresponding offline threats (such as physical barriers, age-related norms that prevent access to certain spaces, and adult supervision) are difficult to migrate and enforce in a virtual space that is inherently open.
Research has also shown that extended screen time in itself may have negative consequences, e.g. on adolescents sleep,  physical activity and social well-being.

 PISA data confirm a troubling relationship between the time teenagers spend on line outside of school and their sense of belonging at school. Results clearly indicate that extreme Internet users (those who spend six or more hours per day on line during weekdays) are twice as likely as moderate Internet users (those who spend between one and two hours per day on line) to report that they feel lonely at school (14% compared to 7%). Extreme Internet users are also particularly at risk of being less engaged with school and of scoring below their peers in the PISA assessment of mathematics.

While these findings cannot prove cause and effect, they suggest that avoiding excess, when it comes to using technology, is important not just for students’ leisure time, but also for how effective school systems are in promoting students’ learning. A concerted effort by schools and parents can help students to become critical consumers of Internet services and electronic media. Schools can raise awareness about the risks that children face on line and how to avoid them; and parents can help their children to moderate their screen time and balance it with other recreational activities, such as sports and, equally important, sleep.

Does it matter how much time students spend on line outside of school? PISA in Focus, N.59.
Quelle est l’incidence du temps que les élèves passent en ligne en dehors de l’école ? PISA in loupe No.59 (French Version)
The protection of children online report
Electronic media use and sleep in school-aged children and adolescents: A review
Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence: results from a large population-based study
Is spending time in screen-based sedentary behaviors associated with less physical activity: a cross national investigation
Adolescent Screen Time and Attachment to Parents and Peers
Photo credit: wireless man with blue waves over head© Shuttershock

Is the gender gap in higher education widening?

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

Share of female bachelor’s graduates by field of study (2013)

One of the most remarkable consequences of the expansion of education in OECD countries over the past decades is the reversal of the gender gap in education. From outright exclusion and discrimination in educational institutions less than a century ago, girls and young women have conquered schools and colleges. In 2013, 55% of all students graduating from a general secondary education programme were girls – ten percentage points higher than in 2000. In learning outcomes, girls now largely outperform boys, though not in all subjects. Last year, the OECD published The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, the most thorough study yet of gender differences in PISA performance. In reading, the gender gap across countries is equivalent to one year of schooling. However, in mathematics boys still outperform girls in six out of ten countries. Most worrisome is the finding that, across subject fields, 60% of all low performers are boys. Low achievement among boys, often combined with a lack of motivation and behavioural issues, and the prospect of an increasing share of unskilled men entering the labour force in the near future, is now one of the most important challenges education systems need to address.

But does this trend extend to colleges and universities? Surprisingly, the widening gender gap in higher education has raised far less public and political concern than that in secondary education. Yet, the numbers are astonishing. The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief  provides the most recent data available on graduates of bachelor’s programmes. In 2013, six million students across OECD countries graduated from a higher education institution with a bachelor’s degree; 58% of them were women. This percentage ranges from 69% in Sweden to 45% in Japan. Besides Japan, only Germany, Korea, Switzerland and Turkey still have more male than female graduates. So, in terms of graduation rates, the gender gap is as significant in higher education as it is in secondary education. And comparing the female graduation rate of 58% to the fact that 54% of new entrants in bachelor’s programmes are women, women also seem to be more successful than men in completing their studies.

Part of girls’ success in secondary education may be related to hidden biases in assessments and/or the effects of a largely female teaching force. But the absence of these biases in tertiary education suggests that young women’s achievement and success in college has to be attributed to stronger motivation and harder work.

An OECD study  published in 2008 provides a historical perspective, demonstrating that the trend has been going on for some time now. In 1995, equal shares of men and women were enrolled in higher education. Yet in 1998, 54% of the degrees awarded went to women. The reversal of the gender gap has happened over only a few generations: in 2014, 24% of 55-64year-old women had a tertiary degree, compared with 26% of men; but among 25-34year-olds, 46% of women, but only 36% of men, had a bachelor’s degree.

The chart above adds an important dimension to the picture: the gender gap varies across fields of study. The chart compares the shares of female graduates in the STEM fields combined, with the shares of female graduates the fields of education, humanities and social sciences combined. In the latter group, women represent over 60% of all graduates. Around 80% of all graduates in education, health and welfare are women. In contrast, only 31% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering went to women. In Belgium, Chile, Finland, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland, less than 25% of graduates in science and engineering are women. In contrast, around 40% or more of these graduates in Canada, Italy, Poland, Turkey and in the partner countries Saudi Arabia and South Africa are women. These gender differences in bachelor’s degrees across fields of study resemble the divergent career expectations among 15-year-old students, as recorded by PISA, and the gendered life and career choices later on. They also account for a significant share of the gender gap in earnings from employment.

So the picture for young women is decidedly mixed. Girls and young women are using education – first at secondary, then at tertiary level – as part of a strategy to improve their life chances. Their success in colleges and universities is an important component of their overall greater participation in the economy and society. Yet, huge gender differences in the choices of subjects pursued in higher education, combined with powerful and persistent gender stereotypes in work places and along career paths, prevent women from reaping the full benefits of their higher education.

Who are the bachelor’s and master’s graduates? Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 37, by Corinne Heckmann and Camila de Moraes
Les indicateurs de l'éducation à la loupe, issue No. 37 (French version)
Higher Education to 2030, Volume 1, Demography.
The ABC of Gender Equality in Education; Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence