Long-term wellbeing of European societies is at stake

By Natália Mazotte
Freelance Journalist, SGI News

Child and youth opportunities

Children and young people are among the biggest losers in the European economic and debt crisis. What do the staggering numbers in youth unemployment and child poverty in Europe mean for the future of this generation – and the continent as a whole?

While Europe continues to struggle to leave the legacy of the financial crisis behind, an entire generation is feeling the effects of the economic fallout most directly. The remarkable increase in youth unemployment since 2008 is perhaps the most disturbing sign of this scenario. In over a dozen European economies, youth unemployment remains today above 20%, and more than one in three unemployed young people have been looking for work for more than a year, according to the Global Employment Trends for Youth.

If you live in Spain or Greece, are between 15 and 24 years of age, and look for work, you are just as likely to be unemployed as to enjoy the privilege of a work contract. The situation does not improve much in other EU countries, where unemployment rates among young people grew from about 15% in 2008, before the crisis, to 22.2% in 2014, affecting 5.3 million young people. 7.5 million Europeans between 15 and 24 are not in employment, education or training. As such, these young people have dropped off the radar of their country’s education, social and labour market systems, as underlined in the OECD 2015 Skills Outlook on Youth, Skills and Employability.

In the crisis-battered southern European countries, life opportunities have declined while the risk of poverty among children and youth has increased since 2007/08, according to the latest EU Social Justice Index of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

The study contains dramatic numbers, such as 35.8% – more than one third – of children and youth today who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion in Spain. The rate is 31.7% in Portugal. In Greece, it stands at 36.7%, while the share of children living under conditions of severe material deprivation has more than doubled from 9.7% in 2007 to 23.2% in 2014.

Poor labor market and economic deprivation foster mistrust in political institutions

In a study published in 2011, David N. F. Bell and David Blanchflower show that long-term youth inactivity leaves a heritage of reduced lifetime earnings, a large risk of future periods of unemployment and a high likelihood of precarious employment, and it results in poorer health and well-being and lower job satisfaction more than twenty years later.

Additionally, this situation impacts the political scene, where young Europeans appear highly skeptical that those in power are able to address their needs. The shakiness of the labor market and the threat of economic deprivation and social exclusion are all contributing to a growing mistrust of institutionalised politics. Displeasure and frustration are the driving forces behind new forms of political participation, such as Los Indignados, a grassroots protest movement that has grown into the Podemos political party, which won over 20% of the votes in the Spanish general elections last December.

No wonder then that leaders and European institutions consider this one of the most important issues to tackle. In France, where youth unemployment is at a distressing 25.1%, the government recently unveiled new plans, to train young jobseekers and encourage job creation. The same objectives are integrated in the Europe 2020 strategy.

Although the scenario is grim for most EU countries, some of them have managed to go against this trend. Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands remained under 12% youth unemployment in 2015. According to Alain Dehaze, head of the world's largest recruitment company, this is because those countries are better at blending formal education, apprenticeships, work and international experience.

The EU Social Justice Index points out that in Europe as a whole “governments must seek to improve vocational training, reduce the number of early school leavers and improve the transition from the education system to the labor market.“

Poverty is a vicious circle

Whereas young people face hardships transitioning to independence and adulthood in a post-crisis economic context, children are among the biggest losers in countries where the recession has hit hardest.

The most recent Innocenti Report Cards, a UNICEF publication devoted to the living conditions and well-being of children in economically advanced countries, reveals a strong correlation between the extent to which the recession ravaged national economies and the decline in child well-being since 2008.

Some 1.6 million more children were living in severe material deprivation in 2012 (11.1 million) than in 2008 (9.5 million) in 30 European countries. The largest increase in child poverty has been in southern Europe – in Greece, Italy and Spain – as well as in Croatia.

According to the study, children from families who have experienced difficulty remaining in the labor market and satisfying their most basic material and educational needs suffer the stress directly. “Poverty is a self-reinforcing cycle. A child with unemployed parents may do less well at school. Doing less well at school may bring more stress at home. And so on. The longer a child is locked in the cycle, the fewer the possibilities of escape,” the report says.

The EU Social Justice Index does not present a more comforting picture but it highlights some of the ways which can reduce child poverty in Europe: governments should set priorities so that those disadvantaged in society “receive targeted support through a functioning tax and transfer system (e.g., effective child benefit and allowance schemes, housing benefits).” However, “combating poverty is not only a question of monetary support, it also depends on sound policies in other areas, such as education and employment,” the experts warn.

Measures to reverse the deterioration of children’s quality of life are urgently needed to avoid highly disturbing future prospects, not only for this generation, but also for Europe as a whole.

OECD Skills Outlook 2015: Youth, Skills and Employability
Europe 2020 strategy
EU Social Justice Index
UNICEF Innocenti Report Cards
Global Employment Trends for Youth 2015: Youth employment crisis easing but far from over
Graph source: @ BertelsmannStiftung

How much time is spent on maths and science in primary education?

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

Compulsory instruction time per subject in primary education, in hours per school day (2015)

Primary school is a fundamental stage in children’s education. Yet it is often neglected in education research and policy debates, somehow squeezed between the seemingly more important stages of early childhood education and secondary education. The purpose of primary education is to build a solid foundation on which an entire life of learning can thrive. Cognitive processes such as working memory, attention, self-regulation, as well as character traits, communication skills, motivation and meta-learning attitudes grow enormously during the first years at school. And the primary school curriculum lays out the basic constituents of human knowledge by introducing students to its core disciplines.

Historically, the relative importance of the core subjects in primary school has always been a contentious issue. Many social interests and political opinions converge in the decision-making process, often resulting in an overcrowded curriculum prioritising expected social outcomes over children’s education needs and potential. A sound primary school curriculum should have sufficient “air” and flexibility to provide the space for children’s autonomous learning, for playful learning and for self-directed discovery of the world. Still, the relative weight of some of the core subjects in the curriculum is worth serious consideration.

The new Education Indicators in Focus brief presents the instruction time given to each of the main subjects in primary school across OECD countries in 2015. On average, primary school students receive 4.3 hours of instruction time per day. But as shown in the chart above, the differences across OECD countries are huge. More than one quarter of that time, 1.1 hours, on average, is spent on reading, writing and literature in the language used at school, ranging from almost two hours in France to .6 hours in Poland. France also devotes a relatively large amount of time to language instruction: no less than 37% of total instruction time.

Of course, language instruction is core to primary education. Reading and writing are foundation skills that are conventionally learned in the first years of primary school. Language instruction also supports wider cognitive development as well as social and communication skills.

But what about mathematics? And natural sciences? In most OECD countries, apart from some basic arithmetic, maths and science only made their way into the curriculum after the second industrial revolution. Curriculum reforms of the 1920s and 1930s provided space for maths and science education, often combined with new pedagogical approaches inspired by the child-centred pedagogy and the emerging field of cognitive psychology. In the second half of the 20th century it became generally accepted that basic mathematical understanding, or numeracy, and a basic knowledge of the natural world were as important foundation skills, to be mastered by every child, as literacy.

In 2015 on average across OECD countries, maths counted for 45 minutes of instruction time per day in primary education, and natural science for another 20 minutes. In relative terms, this translates to 17% of time devoted to maths and 8% devoted to science. So, on average primary schools across OECD countries spent approximately the same amount of instruction time on maths and science combined as on language. Thus, the core subjects of language, maths and science account for half of the total instruction time in primary education.

Yet, again, the differences among countries are huge. Korea and Poland provide less than half an hour per day of mathematics, while France, Mexico and Portugal devote more than one hour per day to maths at the primary level. The instruction time spent on maths and science outweighs that for language instruction by more than 25% in Chile, Portugal and Poland, while it counts for 25% or less time than for language instruction in Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Turkey.

Will the third and fourth industrial revolutions shake up the primary school curriculum again, leading to an increase in the time available for maths and science education? Contemporary concerns about STEM education have provoked new interest in the policy discussion on primary school curricula and the relative importance given to maths and science. To equip all students with the basic mathematical and scientific knowledge and understanding, sufficient time should be made available in the curriculum. Of course, time is only one of the variables in curriculum design. Even with all the time in the world, an uninspiring curriculum taught with bad pedagogies will yield poor results. And a badly designed curriculum that puts students under a lot of stress could reinforce maths anxiety and will dissuade students from pursuing maths education later on. Maths and science curricula need to be challenging, pedagogies need to focus on active learning and engagement, and children need sufficient time to understand the basics of maths and science. 

How is learning time organised in primary and secondary education? Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 38, by Eric Charbonnier
Les indicateurs de l'éducation à la loupe, issue No. 38 (French version)
Photo credit: © OECD

Why teacher professionalism matters

by Katarzyna Kubacka
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

If you were to search for the term teacher professionalism on the Internet, you may come across websites recommending professional dress code or “look” for teachers. Although this may be of some use to a new teacher, appearance is not what most policy makers, school leaders and teachers have in mind when they insist on the need for a quality professional teacher force.
So what exactly do we mean when we talk about teacher professionalism? The new Teaching in Focus brief: Teacher professionalism uses results from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) to show that teacher professionalism is about a teacher’s knowledge, their autonomy and their membership of peer networks. These are the key elements that lead to more effective teaching.
Based on the new OECD report: Supporting teacher professionalism: Evidence from TALIS 2013, the brief shows that different countries focus on different aspects of teacher professionalism. For example, some systems put more emphasis on supporting the teacher knowledge base through activities such as incentivising teacher professional development, some focus on autonomy through giving more decision making to teachers (e.g. over the course offerings or teaching content), and some focus on peer networks through cultivating strong networks of teachers.
These different practices are an important basis for a quality teaching force and they also impact on how teachers feel about their work. Teachers are more satisfied and confident, and have a higher perception of the value of the teaching profession in society, when there is more support for peer networks and development of knowledge base.
Practices that support strong teacher professionalism are particularly beneficial in schools with a high population of socio-economically disadvantaged students, second-learners or students with special needs (high needs schools). Teachers in such schools can face many challenges that are unfamiliar to teachers in well-performing, low needs schools. Unfortunately, practices to support teacher professionalism are, in many countries, less frequent in high than in low needs schools. This is a missed opportunity to provide a boost to teachers in challenging situations, particularly because the positive relationship between teacher professionalism and job satisfaction is amplified in high needs schools.
The OECD report provides clear recommendations to systems wanting to cultivate teaching, and in particular teacher professionalism. To increase teacher professionalism, systems should provide induction and mentoring programmes, create incentives for participating in professional development, and boost teacher collaboration. By supporting these practices, stakeholders can build a teaching force that is more professional, happier and more confident. The results will might not be seen in a teacher’s appearance, but definitely in the quality of the teaching and learning.

Supporting teacher professionalism: Evidence from TALIS 2013
TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning 
A Teachers' Guide to TALIS 2013: Teaching and Learning International Survey
New Insights from TALIS 2013: Teaching and Learning in Primary and Upper Secondary Education 
Teaching in Focus No. 14: Teacher professionalism
L'enseignement á la Loupe No. 14: Professionnalisme des enseignants
For more on the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS): http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/talis.htm
Photo credit: © Andersen Ross/Inmagine LTD

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Are we failing our failing students?

by Daniel Salinas
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Tens of thousands of students in each country, and millions of students around the world, reach the end of their compulsory education without having acquired the basic skills needed in today’s society and workplace. In fact, not even the countries that lead the international rankings of education performance can yet claim that all of their 15-year-old students have achieved a baseline level of proficiency in mathematics, reading and science. Apart from the obvious damage this does to individual lives, failure of this magnitude has severe consequences for economies and societies as a whole.

A new PISA report, Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, offers an in-depth analysis of low performance at school and recommends ways to tackle the problem.

Analyses show that a combination and accumulation of factors contribute to the likelihood that some students perform poorly in school. Coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged family is the most obvious and perhaps strongest risk factor of low performance at school, but it is not the only one. Students with an immigrant background and those who speak a language at home that is different from the one spoken at school, rural students and those living in single-parent families are, in many countries, more likely to perform poorly. Interestingly, gender stereotypes affect girls and boys differently, depending on the subject: whereas girls are more likely than boys to be low performers in mathematics, boys are more likely than girls to be low performers in reading and science.

Students’ educational opportunities, attitudes and behaviours also matter. Students who had no or only brief access to pre-primary education are more likely to be low performers than those who attended more than a year of pre-primary education. Low performers are also more often found among those who have repeated a grade – whether because low performance led to grade repetition or because grade repetition in earlier grades led to disengagement from school and low performance at age 15 – or who are enrolled in vocational programmes. But students who make the most out of available opportunities – attending school regularly, working harder at school, spending more time doing homework, and participating in extracurricular activities available at school – are less likely to perform poorly.

School-related factors can also contribute to students’ low performance. For example, students are more likely to acquire at least basic proficiency in their school subjects when their teachers have high expectations for them, have better morale, and respond to their students’ needs. Schools where there is more socio-economic diversity among students and less grouping by ability between classes tend to provide a better learning environment for struggling students.

Clearly, there are things that can be done to improve student performance; and over the past decade a diverse group of countries – including Brazil, Germany, Japan and Mexico – has reduced the share of low performers in one or more subjects. The first step for policy makers is to make tackling low performance a priority in their education policy agenda. Because the profile of low performers varies significantly across countries, it is essential to identify low performers and develop multi-pronged, tailored approaches. Tackling low performance requires stepping in as early as possible. That means, among other things, offering pre-primary education opportunities and remedial support in early grades. Providing schools with language and/or psycho-social support (e.g. psychologists, mentors, counsellors) for struggling students and their families, offering extracurricular activities, and training teachers to work with these students can also help. Students, too, can help themselves make the most of their schooling – and their own potential – by showing up at school – on time – and investing their best efforts in learning.

Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed
PISA in Focus No. 60: Who are the low-performing students?
PISA á la loupe No. 60: Qui sont les élèves peu performants?
Photo credit: © OECD

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On target for 21st-century learning? The answers (and questions) are now on line

by Tue Halgreen
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Research Assistant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Put your pencils down. No, the test isn’t over; it might just be starting: the PISA-based Test for Schools has gone digital.

School leaders are calling the PISA-based Test for Schools one of the better indicators out there of how well students are prepared for 21st century learning. It’s a wake-up call as to whether a school’s students are ready to compete on the global market. When asked what students like about the test, one responded: “The questions were relevant to today’s society.”

The PISA-based Test for Schools (known in the United States as the OECD Test for Schools) was developed by the OECD to provide school leaders
and teachers with internationally comparable performance results as well as tangible insights on how to leverage improvements. Whereas PISA, the triennial international survey testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students, assesses education systems as a whole, the PISA-based Test for Schools assesses individual schools using the PISA scale to show how they compare with students and schools in education systems worldwide.
An online version of the test is launched today. The paper-based test was first piloted in 2012 and then offered on-demand to schools for the 2013-14 academic year. Since then, schools in the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain have signed up to participate, and participation is expected to grow with the availability of the PBTS online.
Schools that participate in the PISA-based Test for Schools administer the test to a random sample of 15-year-old students. The test questions are designed to simultaneously assess problem solving and critical thinking in three subjects: reading, mathematics and science. The test also includes a student survey questionnaire that gathers data about student attitudes and school culture. Schools receive a unique report of results that reveals school achievement in comparison to other schools nationally and worldwide- helping educators understand how to accelerate student achievement toward globally competitive outcomes.

School leaders have expressed positive feedback on participating in the PISA-based Test for Schools, repeatedly noting the value of the depth and breadth of the school report provided. The results have helped schools redefine their approaches to making improvements in areas such as curriculum, student’s skills base, and staff training, and helped them learn from global counterparts to make informed changes in policy and practice.