Skills Summit 2016: Skills strategies for innovation, productivity and inclusion

by Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Building the skills needed to succeed at work and in life: Charting the path to 2025

In all OECD countries the working-age population is now either growing at a much slower rate than in the past or shrinking, making productivity and innovation the primary engines of economic growth. The expansion of global value chains and technological advances are reshaping the structure of employment and the skill requirements of jobs. Skills demand and supply continue to diverge rather than converge, despite large numbers of unemployed in many countries and pockets of entrenched unemployment in all. Everywhere, too few adults are upgrading their skills in response to the rapidly changing skills needs of the economy and society. At the same time, countries are also struggling with significant social challenges, such as rising inequality and large increases in flows of migrants. Skills are central to responding to all of these challenges.
On June 29 and 30, 26 Ministers and senior government officials from 15 countries representing a wide range of portfolios, including education, employment, trade, economy, and local government, met in Bergen, Norway, for the Skills Summit 2016: Skills Strategies for Productivity, Innovation and Inclusion. They gathered to chart a path towards 2025 and departed with a renewed resolve to prepare their countries for the skills challenges on the horizon.
Effective skills strategies are essential, yet hard to build

Building effective national skills strategies is critical for making progress on these issues, but countries often struggle to foster the government and society-wide commitment needed to make cross-sectoral skills strategies a reality.
Participants at the Skills Summit spoke frankly about the difficulties they face in putting skills policy at the top of a crowded policy agenda and keeping it there. While action needs to be taken today to ensure that we have the skills we will need tomorrow, this can often be forgotten in the face of pressures to respond to the immediate crises of the day. Too often, the urgent crowds out the important.
Evidence from many quarters, including the Survey of Adult Skills which released new country data earlier this week, shows that skills are critical to people’s economic and social success. What is far less clear is what skills will matter the most in the future. People need to develop skills today that will allow them to succeed in jobs that in many cases do not yet exist, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve problems that have not yet been identified.  It is even possible that in the future, as technological advances replace more and more of the work currently performed by humans, we will be asking less about what skills matter for the labour market and more about what skills matter for meaningful social participation and inclusion. While none of us knows for sure what challenges and opportunities the future holds, what is certain is that we will face them with the skills we develop today.
At the Summit, Ministers acknowledged the need to craft whole-of-government approaches to skills policy. A wide range of factors influence skills needs and outcomes, and responsibility for these areas is spread widely across many ministries and all levels of government. Beyond the ministries of education and employment, ministries of industry, economic development and finance are also involved. Despite growing awareness, all too often cross-ministerial and cross- government collaboration fails to happen in practice.
Collaboration with social partners and other stakeholders is equally critical if we are to achieve enduring success in developing and deploying skills effectively. Ministers were clear that Governments cannot act in splendid isolation if their aim is to improve skills outcomes. Yet engaging employers, labour and people in the co-production of skills policies is complex and requires sustained political commitment.
Maximising a country’s skills potential is everyone’s business. As hosts of the Skills Summit, and pioneers in undertaking a national skills strategy project with the OECD, Norway was well placed to share lessons learned from its experience in building shared commitment and concerted action across ministries, counties, local governments and social partners. Ever-mindful that the actions Norway takes today will drive innovation, productivity and prosperity in the future, while ensuring that no-one is left behind.
International cooperation on skills policies is needed to deliver better skills outcomes

So what more can be done? Despite their diversity, countries appear to be struggling with similar and longstanding challenges, so there is a clear case to be made for greater international cooperation in this area. The Skills Summit provided a valuable opportunity for countries to learn from one another. But it was just a starting point.
For its part, the OECD is upgrading its capacity to meet growing demand from countries for support in building effective skills strategies.
During the Skills Summit, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría announced the launch of the OECD Centre for Skills saying “Better skills policies can help us to overcome these challenges and transform many into opportunities”, according to Angel Gurría, Secretary General at the OECD. “But despite growing recognition of the importance of skills for economic growth and social inclusion, many countries are still failing to anchor skills policies at the centre of national policy agendas and make progress on long standing skills challenges.”
This Centre will support countries in developing and implementing better skills policies in three main ways:
  • First, the Centre will continue to carry out national skills strategy projects with both member and non-member countries, building upon our successful experience to date of working with 10 countries;
  • Second, the Centre will mobilise expertise from across the OECD to develop useful analytical tools while promoting peer-learning by convening policy-makers at the Skills Summit and practitioners on a regular basis;
  • Third, the Centre will draw upon this rich experience to periodically update the OECD Skills Strategy to ensure it continues to respond to countries’ changing and evolving needs.
At the OECD we are excited about the new opportunities that the Centre will offer countries. For it is only by working together that in 2025 we will be able to fuel innovation, productivity and inclusion through better skills.
For more on the OECD’s work on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
Photo credit:@OECD

Why skills matter

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s the time of year when young people in the northern hemisphere are finishing their formal studies for the year – or for the foreseeable future. Some will soon be working at their first jobs, some are just beginning to look for a job, some may have been looking for months with nothing to show for it. What links the classroom and lecture hall to the workplace? Skills.

Three years ago, the OECD published the First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of our Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC. That report found that adults who are highly proficient in the information-processing skills measured by the survey – literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments – are more likely to be employed and earn high wages. They are also more likely to report that they trust others, that they have an impact on the political processes, and that they are in good health.

Since those first results were published, nine more countries and economies have joined the survey. While the results from these countries/economies, published today in Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, broadly confirm those from the countries/economies that participated in Round 1 of the survey, some messages have emerged more clearly.

For example, in Singapore, one of the nine countries/economies that participated in the second round of the survey, young people perform much better than older adults in all three domains assessed. While younger adults outperform their older compatriots in many of the countries/economies surveyed, in no other country is the difference between the proportion of 25-34 year-olds with tertiary education and the proportion of 55-65 year-olds who have attained that level of education as large (53 percentage points) as it is in Singapore. Only 2.4% of Singapore’s 55-65 year-olds demonstrate strong literacy skills, while young Singaporeans now benefit from one of the world’s most advanced education systems. This shows that even as Singapore expanded access to education over the past few decades, the country was able to maintain the quality of the education provided – adding further strength to the argument that expansion of education does not have to come at the expense of the quality of education.

Jakarta (Indonesia) is also among the nine Round 2 countries/economies. Although adults in Jakarta score lower in literacy and numeracy, on average, than adults in any other participating country/economy (more than one in two adults in Jakarta score at or below Level 1 in literacy), their participation in the survey confirms that valuable data on education and skills can be gathered in less economically developed countries. For example, several participating countries and economies, including Jakarta, have large populations of adults who perform poorly in literacy; but none of these populations can be said to be illiterate. How do we know that? The survey includes a special assessment for these adults to pinpoint where their difficulties in literacy lie. Most of these adults recognise words, but have trouble determining whether a sentence makes sense logically in a real-world context.

In both rounds, there is a relatively strong link between performance in the survey and in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the age cohorts covered by both surveys. The performance of a particular age group in PISA is a reasonably good predictor of that group’s performance some years later in the Survey of Adult Skills. The message is loud and clear: if countries want a highly skilled work force, they have to get compulsory education right. This is not to say that acquiring and developing literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills stops once people leave school. In fact, the evidence shows that proficiency continues to improve over time, and that developing and maintaining – or losing – skills over a lifetime is affected by such factors as participation in work and training, which, in turn, can be influenced by policy. But school is one of the key places in which these skills are acquired, and the failings of schooling can be costly and difficult to rectify.

Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
The Survey of Adult Skills: Reader's Companion
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
For OECD work on skills:
Follow: #OECDSkills

Understanding how the brain processes maths learning

by Francesca Gottschalk
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Numbers are universal and constantly confronting us in daily life. In fact, they are so omnipresent that most of us perform basic mathematical calculations every single day without even realising it – when we glance at the clock, count change for a morning coffee, or even when we check the calendar to plan the weeks ahead.

It is, therefore, no surprise that student performance in maths is not only a key indicator for potential academic achievement, but also of future employability and overall participation in our “knowledge economy” society. Without the ability to make sense of the numbers that surround us, one would be completely lost in our modern world (even with a smartphone in hand!).

The question of how we actually learn maths and whether everyone has the ability to do so is thus a crucial one and should be of interest to parents, teachers and policy-makers alike. A new Education Working Paper entitled “The Neuroscience of Mathematical Cognition and Learning” explores the development of numerical cognition and explains that numeracy is actually an innate skill, inherent in humans from birth and further enhanced through formal education. Research indicates that babies as young as one day old are able to judge whether different quantities of objects are equal or not, and by the age of six months, infants often have the ability to discriminate up to three or four objects. It is then through schooling that children learn basic numerical principles –  for example addition and subtraction tables – and the more their ability to process these becomes automatic, the more they are able to devote brain resources (such as attention and working memory) to more complex numerical tasks.

Another way in which we can see the development of innate numeracy skills is through language, as language and maths learning go hand in hand. In literate cultures, number symbols and counting are integral for learning more complicated maths functions that go beyond approximation and simple counting. Illiterate cultures have also developed various trading and counting systems, allowing them to quantify objects and carry out basic maths operations. French researcher Pierre Pica, who spent time examining Amazonian groups, reported that although these groups are illiterate and cannot count, they still exhibit basic trading and approximation systems (illustrated through their daily transactions). This suggests the universality of basic maths systems in the human brain and the importance of the development in tandem of advanced maths and literacy skills. In order to effectively perform arithmetic operations and subsequently learn more complex functions, we need to have culturally transmissible and understood number symbols, which presuppose literacy within a population.

If our numerical abilities are innate, and literacy rates across OECD countries are relatively high, why then are there so many people who struggle with maths? The answer lies in the complexity of learning more advanced maths, which involves many regions of the brain. While it may seem that learning addition and subtraction tables should be a breeze for many students, when we start looking at the complicated processes involved in these different systems, we can understand that disruptions in these pathways can have huge impacts on learning abilities. We can see these effects, for example, in students with developmental dyscalculia (DD) or maths anxiety. In DD, it is thought that there is a deficient level of connectivity between various brain regions, whereas maths anxiety involves a number of cognitive processes such as emotion regulation and attitudinal factors that can hinder maths performance and learning. For example, results to questions about anxiety towards mathematics in the 2012 cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that students in low-performing countries tended to report higher levels of anxiety towards maths in comparison to countries scoring above the OECD average.

What does this mean for the teaching of maths in schools? This paper highlights the fact that there are neither “good” nor “bad” math learners. While there is the potential for students to suffer from various missteps in the maths path, the innate ability for humans to understand numbers and gain numerical skills shows promise even for those students who struggle to grasp basic mathematical concepts, and this is encouraging. For example, the new PISA report, Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All”, illustrates how the use of innovative teaching methods can foster students’ motivation to overcome barriers in maths learning. If teachers and policy-makers better understand how maths learning occurs in the brain, we can start to uncover and implement new strategies to assist students in need, helping them keep their maths path as clear as possible.

Working paper No. 136: The Neuroscience of Mathematical Cognition and Learning, by Chung Yen Looi, Jacqueline Thompson, Beatrix Krause, and Roi Cohen Kadosh
Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science
Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All
Photo credit: Book shelf in form of head on formulas backgrounds @Shutterstock

Closing the gap between education and employment

by Anthony Mann
Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce

Employer engagement in education and training has become a hot topic for policy makers and practitioners around the world. Over recent years, Governments and other stakeholders have invested significant resource in promoting and enabling closer links between employers and schools, colleges, universities and training providers.

Policy objectives have included:

  • Tackling skills shortage/skills mismatch
  • Improving youth skills relevant to dynamic labour market demand
  • Harnessing community resources to improve attainment
  • Putting coherent pathways in place for young people moving through educational and training provision
  • Addressing inequalities in outcomes, promoting social mobility and challenging gender stereotyping.

The OECD has looked at the question of employer engagement from the perspectives of skills provision Learning for Jobs, gender inequality The ABC of Gender Equality in Education and currently with specific emphasis on careers provision and school-to-work transitions within projects such as Skills Beyond School and Work-based Learning in Vocational Education and Training. The EU has funded work connecting schools with STEM industries as part of a strategy to tackle skills shortages Ingenious  and CEDEFOP and the Inter-American Development Bank have explored the relationship in terms of skills mismatch and youth demand for vocational training. The World Bank has looked at connections between classrooms and workplaces in terms of enterprise education, exploring ways to encourage and enable entrepreneurialism particularly in developing countries. UNESCO and the International Labor Organisation have focused particularly on the theme from the perspective of youth employment.

In England, the Department for Education has looked to secondary schools to integrate employer engagement within careers provision; and, in response to the Wolf report, embedded employer links as a core element of 16-19 provision in schools and colleges, particularly to enrich vocational delivery and enhance pupil preparation for employment. Similar steps have been made in Scotland’s Youth Employment Strategy and the actions of the governments in Wales and Northern Ireland. Employers are seen as central to the future of apprenticeship programmes for young people and adults alike.

In sponsoring University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools in England, the Department for Education has supported new institutional models designed to enable profound employer engagement across the curriculum. Around the world, employer engagement has become a mainstream element of educational and training provision – with significant practice in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States.

Two upcoming events will offer a timely opportunity for closing the gap between education and employment:

On 29 and 30 June the Skills Summit in Bergen Norway, will convene ministers with responsibility for a range of skills-relevant portfolios, including education, employment, economic development, regional policy and government co-ordination. Drawing on this wide range of perspectives, The Skills Summit 2016 will provide Ministers with an opportunity to discuss the benefits and challenges of building effective whole-of-government and whole-of-society skills strategies, while at the same time providing a forum to exchange views on how best to maximize countries' skills potential to boost productivity, innovation and social inclusion.

Next month sees an unprecedented coming together of researchers, policy makers and practitioners at the international Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training held in London on 21 and 22 July, with the participation of OECD Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, and Senior Policy Analyst Simon Field. This conference aims to take stock of the best quality research exploring the impact and delivery of employer engagement in education and training in order to understand the implications for effective, efficient and equitable policy and practice.

The Skills Summit, Bergen, Norway 2016
London Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training
Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training: Learning for Jobs
The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence
Photo credit: Job as target in the careers road @Shutterstock

Making all students count

by Chiara Monticone
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Mario Piacentini
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Films about mathematicians have become incredibly popular: many of us now know about John Nash’s beautiful mind. Fewer people have heard the extraordinary story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a genius of comparable stature to Nash. Ramanujan was nothing more than a promising 16-year-old student from a poor family in South India when he came across A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of thousands of mathematical results used by English students. Starting from the textbook, Ramanujan taught himself mathematics. After failing to get into university in India, he sent a letter to one of the great scholars of that time, Godfrey Harold Hardy, who noticed his talent and invited him to Cambridge.  Hardy quickly understood that, in spite of his amazing feats in mathematics, Ramanujan lacked the basic tools of the trade of a mathematician. If he was to fulfil his potential, he had to acquire a solid foundation in mathematics. The Cambridge mathematician worked tirelessly with the Indian genius to harness his creativity to the then-current understanding of the field without destroying his confidence. One good textbook and one outstanding teacher changed the fate of a man and the evolution of number theory and analysis.

There are poor students like Ramanujan who show that achieving great results in their education and professional life is possible. But “possible” is not sufficient: education and social policy should make poor students’ success “probable”. This month’s PISA in Focus and a new OECD report, Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All show that millions of students around the world – especially those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds – often have few opportunities to develop their mathematics skills.

Many students who participated in PISA 2012 reported that they have hardly been exposed to fundamental concepts in mathematics, like arithmetic means or linear equations, which form the basis of the numeracy skills that they will need to thrive as adults. Disadvantaged students are even less exposed to these concepts. For example, the share of advantaged students who reported that they know well or have often heard the concept of quadratic function is 20 percentage points larger, on average across OECD countries, than the share of disadvantaged students who reported so; and the difference between these two groups of students is larger than 30 percentage points in Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, New Zealand, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. The relationship between the content covered during mathematics class and the socio-economic profile of students and schools is stronger in countries that track students early into different study programmes, that have larger percentages of students in selective schools, and that transfer less-able students to other schools.

Exposure to formal mathematics tasks and concepts (involving equations or functions, for example) has an impact on performance, particularly on the most challenging PISA tasks; and differences in familiarity with mathematics are strongly related to the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  On average across OECD countries, differences in familiarity with mathematics account for about 19% of the performance difference between these two groups of students. In Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Korea, Portugal, Switzerland, Thailand and the United States, more than 25% of the performance difference between advantaged and disadvantaged students is related to familiarity with mathematics. The report shows that exposure to applied mathematics tasks (like working out from a train timetable how long it would take to get from one place to another) has a weaker association with performance in PISA, but can stimulate engagement with mathematics and boost self-confidence, particularly among low-achieving students.
Widening students’ opportunities to learn mathematics is not an impossible task, but it may require certain readjustments, from reforming the structure of the education system to improving curriculum focus and coherence, and sharing teaching practices that use time more effectively. For example, Finland, Germany, Poland and Sweden have reformed their school tracking systems to reduce the impact of socio-economic status on students’ access to mathematics and achievement. At the school level, some charter schools in the United States have shown that longer instruction time, individualised support to students, strict behaviour norms, a strong work ethic among students and high expectations for all students can improve the achievement of students in low-performing, disadvantaged schools. Teachers need to be supported in using pedagogies, such as flexible grouping of students or co-operative learning, that increase learning opportunities for all students in mixed-ability classes.

In the end, disadvantaged students’ success in mathematics should become a common tale, not a hyped, romantic screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All
PISA in Focus No. 63: Are disadvantaged students given equal opportunities to learn mathematics? Chiara Monticone and Mario Piacentini
PISA à la Loupe No. 63: Les élèves défavorisés bénéficient-ils des mêmes possibilités d’apprentissage en mathématiques? (French version)
Getting beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City
Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools