Education and skills foster health and well-being, but why is this a problem?

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

Knowing, for example, that tobacco is bad for one’s health influences smoking behaviour much less than being able to control one’s own lifestyle. Schooling, together with non-formal and informal learning experiences, has been found to foster the acquisition of skills that matter for health behaviour. It is one of the great insights of recent educational research that education is a very important driver of social progress, and that this happens through the transfer of knowledge and the development of cognition, but probably even more so through fostering the social and emotional skills that allow people to control and change their behaviours.

Traditional economics measure the benefits of education and skills in its economic gains in employment or earnings. These measures include for example the ‘rate of return’ of an individual’s investment in educational attainment or skills acquisition as the annualised average financial benefit, in much the same way as interests rates on capital investment are calculated. This is more or less equivalent to measuring, at an aggregate level of a country or region, the growth rate in the ‘gross domestic product’ (GDP) or total economic output to indicate economic growth.

Whilst such economic measures remain important and influential, they have been increasingly criticised for being one-dimensional and reductionist. They poorly reflect the diversified and holistic nature of human and social progress, well-being or happiness. The publication of the so-called Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report, named after the three chairs of the Commission established by ex-French President Sarkozy to develop new measures of economic performance and social progress, was a pivotal moment for the international community that GDP did not tell the whole story of human development. International organisations – and together with the World Bank and others the OECD has taken a leadership role in this – have started to develop the measurement tools and methodologies for a multidimensional approach to well-being and social progress.

Similarly, work has been undertaken in recent years to develop a more holistic and multidimensional set of measures for estimating the various benefits of investment in education and skills, moving into fields such as health, interpersonal trust, life satisfaction, political engagement, citizenship or volunteering. For a number of years Education at a Glance has included an indicator on these so-called ‘social outcomes of education’, based on the analysis of various data collections. This issue of Education Indicators in Focus brief discusses the most recent findings of this work.

The chart above, focusing on self-reported health, is a good illustration; its pattern is not very different from the ones found for other social outcomes. Both educational attainment (horizontal dimension) and skills, measured by literacy skills, (vertical dimension) are associated with better self-reported health. The chart also shows that although there are strong interactions between education and skills, each has an impact of its own. Within each attainment level the literacy skills level of individuals is also positively associated with the health outcome, and vice versa.

Correlation does not however imply causation. Obviously there are selection effects and factors that mediate the relationship such as employment, work environments, living standards or income. But research that controls for such factors has found that there also is an independent education effect on health outcomes through the acquisition of skills that drive pro-health behaviours. Analysis of longitudinal datasets by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation’s Education and Social Progress project has shown that cognitive and non-cognitive skills acquired informal education and through informal learning change the health behaviour of individuals and improve general self-perceived health. Moreover, the non-cognitive social and emotional skills, such as self-control, perseverance and conscientiousness, seem to exert a bigger impact on health outcomes than cognitive ones.

Research on the economic benefits of education and skills has focused on the returns for individuals. Work on the social outcomes of education has also emphasised the benefits for individuals’ success in life. But what about the effects on communities and societies? Can we actually assume that the positive outcomes of education and skills at the individual level add up to better living conditions and well-being for everyone? In the case of economic returns this is far from evident. The data from Education at Glance shows us that economic returns depend on the wage differentials with less educated individuals. High rates of return mirror high levels of income inequality. Countries with less unequal income distributions show lower economic returns. Raising the share of tertiary-educated individuals in a country, leading to higher returns for those individuals, might increase social inequality if the lower attainment levels are left unchanged and the higher attainment levels concentrate on a larger share of the social product.

In the case of social outcomes this is much less the case. Individuals with higher social returns on education do not concentrate the social surplus, but there are important spill-over effects to other individuals. An individual with better health behaviour will have a positive impact on his or her social environment. Likewise, a person with higher interpersonal trust will positively influence his or her community. Better health outcomes of education thus add up to societies with higher longevity, and higher levels of individual interpersonal trust aggregate to more cohesive societies.

However, we should not be too positive about the impressively high education and skills gradient in various social outcomes. The positive impact of education and skills on health is only evident because low-educated individuals show poorer levels of self-reported health. The education and skills gradient also shows that people who have missed the opportunities for quality education and who lack the skills pay a high price in their own health. As much as we praise the good health of high-educated individuals, this remains a social problem and an educational challenge.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 47: How are health and life satisfaction related to education? by Simon Normandeau and Gara Rojas Gonzalez.
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Follow the conversation on twitter: #OECDEAG
Chart source: OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015). See Education at a Glance 2014 for more information,

Lessons for France from PISA 2015

by Gabriela Ramos
OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20

Fifteen years ago, the OECD started evaluating education systems worldwide by testing the knowledge and competences of 15-year-old students through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Right from very first PISA exercise in 2000, we noted that although the results for France were around the OECD average, they revealed a system where children’s socio-economic status had a disproportionate influence on their school grades, and where children from disadvantaged backgrounds did not receive enough support.

The OECD PISA 2015 results are now in. Even if France’s performance hasn’t deteriorated since the last series in 2012, it has not improved much compared to previous rounds either. France’s results for science and mathematics are around the OECD average, while reading comprehension is slightly above average.

Nonetheless, the French system is still markedly two-tier. The number of high-performing students is stable and higher than the OECD average, but lower levels are not improving, with a proportion of 15-year-olds in difficulty in science higher than the OECD average.

According to PISA 2015, students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are three times less likely to succeed in performing than advantaged students. This is not only a human tragedy. It is also a brake on economic development, which can only be solid and sustainable when it is inclusive.

Reconciling educational excellence and success for all is not just the best way to tackle social inequalities at the root, but also to obtain good results.

Results from around the globe illustrate various best practices applied to improve the equity and performance of the education system. Portugal’s TEIP programme for example (Priority Intervention Education Territories) targets investment in geographical regions where the population is socially disadvantaged and where school dropout rates are higher than the national average. Singapore, first in the PISA science rankings, has a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that includes, in particular, the contribution to students’ personal and academic development, as well as the quality of parent-teacher relations.

In short, the capacity of a system to help students in difficulty and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve raises the general quality of the system and thus its overall performance.

In France however, investments in education do not always reach these groups. I had some personal experience of this malfunctioning when I arrived in France and asked people to recommend primary schools for my own children. The answer was: “Don’t pick a school, pick a neighbourhood”.

How can we ensure that success at school isn’t the result of a postcode lottery? France has already implemented reforms going in the right direction.

As recommended by the OECD, more resources, teachers, scholarships and support have been made available for disadvantaged students. The July 2003 Education Act (Loi d’orientation et de programmation pour la refondation de l’école de la République du 8 juillet 2013) designed to tackle school drop-out and failure from the earliest age marks an important step. The recent implementation of numerous reforms inspired by the Act at primary and junior high levels, could, depending on their practical application, respond to certain ongoing challenges and help to improve students’ learning and outcomes.

Of course it is too early to see any impact of these reforms on PISA 2015 scores. However, they were necessary and should be strengthened and evaluated regularly.

In France, as elsewhere in the past, teachers will play a key role in the reforms and will have to take ownership of the main objectives. Reform of teacher training should therefore be continued and made a priority.

It is important to stress that contrary to a commonly-held belief in France, the PISA 2015 results do not show that reforms designed to reduce social and educational inequalities result in a lowering of the overall level. On the contrary. In countries that carried out such reforms, the number of failing students dropped in the following decade, while the good students got even better. OECD countries that have managed to achieve high performance in science along with equity in terms of educational outcomes include Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Korea, Norway and the United Kingdom according to PISA 2015.

We chose science as the focus of PISA 2015 because a good understanding of science and the technologies derived from it is indispensable, especially in our age of digital revolution. This is not only a necessity for those whose career depends directly on science, but for every citizen who wants to take an enlightened position on any number of questions facing society today, from health to sustainable development or climate change. Today, everyone should be able to “think like a scientist”.

More generally, education is fundamental in these troubled times, when populism is on the rise, when France has been shaken by several terrorist attacks, and social inequalities in the world have left by the wayside a number of citizens who no longer have any trust in institutions.

More than ever, we have to invest in our children’s science education, to respond to the “post-fact” era with an open and informed dialogue. More than ever, we have to strengthen our education systems to face up to the challenges that increasingly threaten to divide us.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
PowerPoint (in French)
PISA 2015 – Compare your country by OECD
Photo credit: © Iakov Filimonov / Shutterstock

Today’s the day

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

The latest results from PISA are released today. Before you look to see how well your country performed on the triennial test of 15-year-olds students around the world, consider this: only 20 short years ago, there was no such thing as a blog. If it weren’t for science and technology, not only would you not be reading this right now, but there wouldn’t be the device on which you’re reading it – or countless other gadgets, medicines, fibres, tools… that have become all but indispensable in our lives.

Obviously, we don’t all have to be scientists to live in the 21st century. But an understanding of some basic principles of science – like the importance of experiments in building a body of scientific knowledge – is essential if we want to make informed decisions about the most pressing issues of our time (or even if we just want to choose the “healthiest” option for lunch).

PISA 2015 focused on students’ performance in and attitudes towards science. More than half a million 15-year-olds (representing around 29 million students) in 72 countries and economies sat the test. Today is the day we find out whether students around the world can take what they have learned in school and use it to solve problems they might encounter in “real” life.

What do the results tell us? For an easily digestible summary of the findings and their implications, see this month’s special edition of PISA in Focus or watch the video above. (And if you’re not sure you really understand how PISA works, or what influence it might have over education policy, check out these animations: How does PISA work? and How does PISA help shape education reform?) But if you want to dig deeper, the first two volumes of the PISA 2015 Results (Volume I, Volume II), published today, present all of the results, and examine how student performance is associated with family background, the learning environment in school, and the policy choices governments make. (And we have science and technology to thank for enabling you to sample any or all of these by just tapping your finger.)

So tap into the world’s most comprehensive set of data on learning. You’ll probably learn something, too.

PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education
PISA 2015 Results (Volume II): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools
PISA 2015 Results in Focus
PISA 2015 Résultats à la loupe

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Looking forward to PISA

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Tomorrow, the OECD will publish the 2015 PISA results. The world’s premier global metric for education will tell us which countries have the best school systems, based on the performance of 15-year-olds in science, mathematics and reading over a two-hour test. 

PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) was introduced in 2000 and held every three years since. The test is of skills, not knowledge: what you can do with what you know is what counts. But over time the emphasis has shifted. The focus today is whether students can think like a scientist, reason like a mathematician and distinguish between good and bad arguments in a written text. We live in an era of unimaginable technology breakthroughs, conflicting values and threatened political norms. Literacy, in all three of the foundational domains, is the key to making sense of the world and shaping it for the better – for everyone, not just elites.

The value of PISA lies in comparison. Countries look beyond their borders for evidence of effective policy and PISA provides a yardstick for evaluating success. It ranks the performance of countries on quality, equity and efficiency. And by picking out the characteristics of high-performing systems, it allows educators to identify successful policies and adapt them to local contexts.   

In the last PISA round, in 2012, the best performing countries were in Asia. Asian countries took the top five spots in both mathematics and reading and the top four in science (with Finland in fifth place). But behind the headlines lie important insights. In Estonia and Finland there were only small variations in student scores, showing that quality can go hand-in-hand with inclusion. In Canada, Macao and Hong Kong, socio-economic disadvantage among students had relatively less impact on individual performance: poverty is one thing, destiny quite another.  

So what will we learn from PISA 2015? For the first time in a decade, the report concentrates on science. Has science education improved? Around the world, have 15-year-olds got better at explaining phenomena scientifically, designing scientific enquiry and interpreting data scientifically? Is the gender gap in science education closing? Have poorer students caught up? And where countries have maintained high performance or improved from where they were, what were the factors? Where should the balance lie between additional investment, great teaching and coherent long-term leadership?

The global stakes are high, first because of growing demand for scientists in the workplace, second because every one of us needs a scientific perspective. The demand for scientists comes from the transformational impact of science and technology. Given the accelerating pace of invention and innovation, its vital that countries prepare more young talent for more jobs in hard science – and for many other jobs with a science dimension. The broader need for scientific literacy stems from the centrality of science to everyday decisions. Whether buying toothpaste, recycling household waste or attending a meeting on the local effects of global warming, we are all subject to science-based claims and counter-claims. Can we separate substance from spin, identify misrepresentations and assess levels of uncertainty and trustworthiness?  Post-truth politics is the neologism of the year and in some quarters expertise itself has become a dirty word. It is time to stand our ground – to insist on education as the key to civilised societies.

In many countries, educators are talking not only about skills but also values and attitudes. Singapore, Australia, Canada, Estonia and Finland – all of them among the top performing countries in previous PISA cycles – are rebuilding curricula around new forms of competence, such as critical and inventive thinking, global awareness and collaboration. They see values such as tolerance and respect as foundational. PISA too is developing rapidly. Next year we will publish the results of an additional 2015 assessment of collaborative problem solving, and we have advanced plans for assessing inter-cultural sensitivity in 2018. Creativity, entrepreneurship and ethical thinking are all under consideration for future cycles.

But with the seventy PISA countries and economies, the OECD believes that the bedrock of a good education should continue to lie in science, mathematics and reading. Literacy in all three offers prosperity, fulfilment and a chance to contribute to the well-being of others. Tomorrow, PISA 2015 will tell the world about its progress.  

PISA 2015 Global launch events

The OECD and Education Policy Institute will host a global launch event in London at the Institute of Directors with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría and Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills.

The event will be live streamed from 09:45 – 12:20 GMT

This will be followed by on online public Q & A session starting at 2:00 GMT with Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills. Questions in advance of the session will be welcome, using the #OECDPISA hashtag on Twitter and via the OECD PISA Learning Community

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Photo credit: © OECD

Discover your talent!

by Deborah Roseveare
Head of the Skills Beyond School Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Last night I got a taxi home and as often happens, the driver and I got chatting. Then he asked me a rather strange question – “Do you like the smell in my car?” Well, I have to say the smell was a very subtle one but it led to a fascinating conversation. 

With some pride, he told me that he was trying out a new product for cleaning car interiors developed by a friend of his. His friend already had his own business selling these products and then came the big surprise – this friend is only 17 years old. But isn’t he still in school? I asked. Yes of course, he was doing a professional baccalaureate (a vocational programme here in France).

This talented young man, who was smart enough to have skipped a class in primary school, had a passion for chemistry and had been doing experiments – more or less successfully — in his mother’s kitchen from a young age. So why had he chosen a professional baccalaureate? Apparently, he wanted hands-on learning, get practical experience and develop the skills that would help him succeed in his business ventures.

It’s not often that a taxi gets me home too quickly, but I ran out of time to ask more questions. It’s always great to hear stories about young people discovering their talent, finding an education pathway that supports them in following their passion and gaining the skills to succeed in life. So I’m looking forward to hearing many more success stories that show young people and adults how you too can “discover your talent!” during European Vocational Skills Week 2016, which runs from 5-9 December 2016. 

Why focus on vocational skills? In a changing and more competitive job market, Vocational Education and Training (VET) delivers specific skills and knowledge for the jobs of today and tomorrow, leading to great careers and good life prospects. Pursuing VET can lead to quality employment, an entrepreneurial mind-set, attractive and challenging careers, and opportunities for continuous upskilling and reskilling.

Sometime in the coming years I expect to hear about a successful young entrepreneur putting innovative cleaning products on supermarket shelves and I’ll remember how vocational education and training helped him discover and develop his talent and gave him the skills to succeed.

European Vocational Skills Week 2016
OECD Policy Reviews of Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Adult Learning 

Twitter hashtags: #EUVocationalSkills #discoveryourtalent
Photo credit: © European Commission