Social inequalities in education are not set in stone

by Carlos González-Sancho
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Most people see social inequities in education as stubbornly persistent. Children of wealthy and highly educated parents tend to do better in school than children from less-privileged families. Even though historic progress has been made in providing schooling that is universal and free-of-charge, disparities in families’ capacity to support their children (including by getting them into good schools) continue to translate into differences in children’s achievements. And with income inequality at its highest level in 30 years, the socio-economic disparities between families have widened. For instance, today in OECD countries, the richest 10% of the population earns about 10 times the income of the poorest 10%, while in the 1980s this ratio stood at 7 to 1. The growing gap between rich and poor can lead to greater differences in education opportunities because, as income inequality increases, disadvantaged families find it more difficult to secure quality education for their children.

Given all this, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see a change for the worse in equity in education, particularly in OECD countries, over the past decade.

But contrary to that expectation, as this month’s PISA in Focus reports, over the past ten years, equity in education improved in 11 PISA-participating countries and economies, and on average across OECD countries. Between PISA 2006 and PISA 2015, the evolution of several equity indicators was predominantly positive. Take, for example, the indicator that measures how well a student’s socio-economic status predicts his or her performance (what PISA terms the strength of the socio-economic gradient). Over the past decade, the socio-economic gradient weakened by 1 percentage point on average across OECD countries, but by between 6 and 7 percentage points in Bulgaria, Chile, Thailand and the United States, and by between 2 and 6 percentage points in Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Montenegro and Slovenia.

PISA can also contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms through which equity evolves. A sign that greater equity is mainly benefiting disadvantaged students is the increasing proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who beat the odds against them and perform at high levels (students whom PISA calls “resilient”). Between 2006 and 2015, the percentage of resilient students increased by 12 percentage points in the United States, and by between 4 and 9 points in Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany and Slovenia.

You can also get an idea of how performance among children of blue- and white-collar parents has evolved by using the new PISA trends in occupations tool. The tool allows users to visualise trends in the relationship between parents' occupations and children’s performance between 2006 and 2015. Navigating this tool, you can discover, for instance, that in the United States during that period, children of blue-collar parents (e.g. craft workers, plant and machine operators) narrowed the gap in science achievement with children of white-collar parents (managers, professionals, technicians).

What lies behind this improvement in equity? Education policy. Policies that minimise any adverse impact of students’ socio-economic status on their school outcomes include targeting additional resources to schools with high concentrations of low-performing and disadvantaged students, and ensuring that high and consistent teaching and learning standards are applied across all classrooms. Broader social policies to reduce differences in early life experiences between advantaged and disadvantaged children can also promote both equity and high performance when these children enter formal education.

PISA shows that countries can move from relative inequity in education to the OECD average level of equity in the span of just 10 years – as Bulgaria, Chile, Germany and the United States did between 2006 and 2015. Rather than assuming that inequality of opportunity is set in stone, school systems can design policies with the understanding that they can become more equitable in a relatively short time.

PISA in Focus No. 68: Where did equity in education improve over the past decade?
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education
PISA 2015 Results (Volume II): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools
In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All
PISA trends in occupations tool, developed by Przemyslaw Biecek, a former Thomas J. Alexander fellow.

Photo credit: Start Ambition @shutterstock 

Who are the winners and losers of the expansion of education over the past 50 years?

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

Modern education systems, which are open to the middle classes and the poor, not just the elites, were established during the first industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The growing demand for elementary literacy and technical skills during that period prompted an expansion of school systems and the adoption of the first pieces of legislation on compulsory education. Popular education continued to grow during the first half of the 20th century, corresponding to the so-called “second industrial revolution”, which was ignited by advances in science and technology. In the early 20th century, attainment of primary education became nearly universal, and the system of secondary education began to grow. 

But the great surge in the expansion of education in developed nations, specifically in secondary education, occurred in the wake of World War II, and more specifically from the 1960s and 1970s onwards. At that time, many countries started to see a massive increase in the demand for education, which they had to meet with new infrastructure, a vast effort to recruit and train more teachers, and a corresponding jump in public funding. Unprecedented economic growth and the modernisation of societies, together with an emerging welfare-state consensus that included public education as one of its core components, created the demand for skills and aspirations for upward mobility among large sections of the population – and the political and economic resources to fuel that expansion.

The most recent Education Indicators in Focus brief provides a fascinating statistical account of the growth of secondary education attainment in OECD countries since 1965, spanning half a century to 2015. The chart above highlights the differences in take-off and speed of growth of educational attainment across countries. It ranks countries by the date at which 80% of the 25-34 year-olds in that country attained upper secondary education.

The chart clearly shows that the dominant view of the expansion of education, which is based on data from only a few countries, does not do justice to the variety of developmental trajectories across countries. For example, the United States had developed its system of public education steadily since the late 19th century and had already achieved the 80% benchmark attainment rate by 1969. This remarkable achievement provided one of the foundations for the economic, social and political powerhouse that the United States became in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Germany was also an early achiever in educational development. The Prussian state adopted legislation on compulsory education early in the 19th century. Strong economic development from the late 19th century onwards and welfare-state approaches to public education after Bismarck propelled the development of public education across the country, albeit in a socially segregated system with sharp divisions between the elite education offered in the Gymnasia and the technical-vocational education targeting the working class. 

It is no coincidence that the two most educationally developed nations at the time fought on opposite sides of World War II. But it is also interesting to note that both countries did not make a lot of further progress in the half century after 1965, and that they have been surpassed by a wide range of countries since then. Other countries, including Denmark, Norway and Sweden, have also not been able to build on their impressive position in 1965 and have even seen a decline in educational attainment rates among the younger generation in recent years.

In 1965, fewer than one in two 25-34 year-olds in most OECD countries had attained upper secondary education. The interesting thing to compare is the timing and speed of the expansion of education over the subsequent 50 years. The most impressive – and well-known – story is of course that of Korea. With an attainment rate of just over 20% in 1965 it succeeded in expanding education at an unprecedented speed, especially from 1985 onwards. No other country has been able to match that achievement. Despite doubts about the sustainability of the expansion, especially since it has moved to the tertiary level, and the risks of “education inflation”, it remains an impressive historical accomplishment, which undoubtedly fuelled the economic success of the country.

The chart shows that there are other examples of rapid educational development over the past 50 years, such as occurred in Belgium, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland and Poland. When these countries were transforming themselves from agricultural to largely industrial economies, they managed to grow their secondary attainment rate from below 40% in 1965 to the 80% benchmark between 1990 and 2005. Another group of countries, which includes Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, is also making enormous progress, but has yet to reach the benchmark in attainment.

Trajectories of education expansion vary enormously among countries. The differences observed in 1965 were already remarkable, mirroring the diversity of levels of economic development and state formation. Religious divisions within Europe are still apparent in the 1965 data, with countries with a “Protestant work ethic” in the lead and predominantly Catholic countries much further behind. But by 2015, most of these countries have converged in their upper secondary attainment levels, and the ranking in educational attainment looks now completely different from the one in 1965.

It is difficult to disentangle the interplay between social developments and developments in education to determine causality with any certainty; but it is clear that the expansion of education helped countries grow economically, modernise and develop their social and political systems. Of course, rising educational attainment also has a downside: the increased marginalisation and exclusion of those without a good education. Recent social and political events have exposed the fractures in societies along the educational attainment fault line. While expansion is now moving into the tertiary level of education, countries might also have to turn their focus from fuelling continuous growth to catering more to those who have been left behind during this remarkable historical transformation.


Education Indicators in Focus No. 48: Educational attainment: A snapshot of 50 years of trends in expanding education
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Follow the conversation on twitter: #OECDEAG
Chart source: OECD (2016), “Educational attainment and labour-force status”, Education at a Glance (database). See Annex 3 for notes.

How student attitudes towards the value of education can be shaped by careers education – evidence from the OECD’s PISA study

by Anthony Mann 
Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce, London, UK
Dr Elnaz T. Kashefpakdel 
Senior Researcher, Education and Employers Taskforce, London, UK

As governments around the world seek to tackle stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment, new attention has been focused on the relationship between education and employment. Both researchers and policy-makers have looked afresh at the capacity of employers to engage in education and training to improve young people’s preparation for the adult working world. Building on two landmark reports, Learning for Jobs and Skills beyond School, the OECD is itself in the midst of a multi-year, multi-country study of work-based learning looking initially at the engagement of employers in apprenticeship provision aimed at youth at risk and incentives for apprenticeship. Last year saw the publication in the UK of a government-sponsored literature review looking at evidence, from OECD countries since 1996, using Randomised Controlled Trials and quasi-experimental (longitudinal) approaches. That review looked for evidence of the efficacy of careers education (covering classic career guidance, work-related learning, employer engagement and enterprise education) in enhancing young people’s prospects. The study looked at 73 studies and found that some two-thirds found evidence of largely positive economic and educational outcomes. In so doing, the review added to a growing awareness that engagement of the working world within the educational process can improve employment outcomes, but also opened up a new area of enquiry: can employer engagement enhance student educational performance and if so, how does it do it? Drilling down into five UK studies, the review found a literature which offered evidence of ‘relatively modest attainment boosts’ linked to a ‘hypothesis that careers education helps young people to better understand the relationship between educational goals and occupational outcomes, increasing pupil motivation and application.’

A new study of PISA data now offers insight into how such relationships might work.  It draws on data from the OECD’s 2012 study in which some countries opted to ask 15-year old participants whether they had taken part in a series of career development activities (CDA). In the new analysis, data from six countries was used (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland and Ireland) in relation to participation in four popular careers-focused activities commonly delivered through schools: taking part in Internships, Job shadowing, Job fairs and speaking with a careers advisor in school. In a regression analysis which took account of a common range of social, demographic and behavioral characteristics which routinely influence student success in education, participation in CDA was tested to see if it influenced attitudes towards schooling. Responses to four statements were tested including School is a waste of time, School helps to get a job and School does little to prepare you for life.

In most cases, a positive and statistically significant relationship between participation in career development activities and more positive attitudes towards the utility of schooling was found. The most consistent positive effects are found in relationship to speaking with a careers advisor in school and attending a Job fair. Relationships are particularly strong in Finland and Ireland. The study offers fresh insight into the complex relationship between education and employment and how young people’s attitudes about education and its value can potentially be influenced by schools and colleges by exposing students to new experiences. Further analysis of the relationship between participation in CDA and performance on the PISA tests is planned.

OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training:

For more on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
Photo credit: Careers Employment Job Recruitment Occupation Concept @shutterstock 

Building strong partnerships to tackle Mexico’s skills challenges

by Gabriela Ramos
Chief of Staff, OECD

Skills are central to the future prosperity and well-being of Mexico’s people 

Skills are the foundation upon which Mexico must build future growth and prosperity. Mexico, being one of the youngest populations among OECD countries, has a strong demographic advantage and thus a unique window of opportunity. But it also faces common challenges to bring the skills of its population up to the requirements of the global digital economy.

The time to act is now. Mexico needs to boost the development, activation and use of skills to drive further innovation and inclusive growth while dealing more effectively with longstanding, but increasingly urgent issues, such as improving equity and reducing informality. To this end, the aim of current educational reform in Mexico is a must to provide quality education to all the individuals.

However, challenges remain. According to the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data many youth in Mexico are not developing high levels of skills with a very high share of students performing poorly in mathematics (56.6%), in reading (41.7%) and in science (47.8%). In addition, due to high drop-out rates only 56% of 15-19 year-olds complete upper secondary education, far below the OECD average of 84%. Similarly, on tertiary level only 16% of the population aged 25 to 64 years old in 2015 had attained tertiary education, which is significantly below the OECD average of 36%. To these outcomes, we should add the fact that young people connect with informal labour market, reinforcing the precariousness of their job opportunities. Therefore, despite recent progress, Mexico still remains in a low-skill equilibrium.

Indeed, Mexico tends to specialise in low value-added activities linked to informal employment arrangements, which are estimated to account for 52.5% of all employment. Workers in the informal economy are, on average, less likely to: receive training, participate in high performance workplace practices that make more effective use of their skills, and find themselves employed in precarious and low quality jobs. Therefore, demand-side barriers which discourage employers from hiring formally should continue to be addressed, as well as the high cost to firms for hiring low income workers, a complex tax system, and heavy labour market regulations. Targeted support will be also needed if young people and women are to enter and remain engaged in the labour market. Over one in five young people are currently neither in employment, education, or training (NEETs), risking becoming permanently marginalised – from the labour market, from education, and from society. Given the differences between boys and girls not in employment or in schools, special emphasis should be placed on women’s conditions, and to sustain their involvement with high quality jobs. Mexico cannot be losing the talent of half of its population.

More needs to be done to improve the use of skills in the workplace. There are significant skills mismatches with a quarter of workers (26%) over-educated and just under a third (31%) under-educated for their current job. Companies and educational institutions need to co-operate to reduce these mismatches at source, while firm-sponsored training could help the low-skilled. At the same time boosting innovation and research are critical if Mexican firms are to continue improving productivity, move up the global value chain, and increase the demand for higher skills. But in 2013, Mexican businesses invested the equivalent of just 0.2% of GDP in R&D. That’s not just well short of the OECD average but well below Korea’s 3.3% of its GDP investment in R&D during the same time period.

Making this all happen in practice requires concerted government action. Mexico has undertaken a number of reforms aiming to enhance the quality of teaching, raise productivity, stimulate innovation and improve integration into global value chains. Actually, one of the positive pieces of news is that productivity has increased recently as a result of recent reforms, particularly in the telecommunications market.

It is necessary to improve effectiveness of government institutions, and formal collaboration arrangements across ministries. The National Productivity Committee is good news in this sense – but much remains to be done. Yet governments cannot achieve better skills outcomes alone. Success will depend on the commitment and actions of a broad range of stakeholders. The help of employers, trade unions, students and trainers is needed. These are the people who, each and every day, invest in skills, set skills in motion and put them to work.

Best practices of other countries 

Countries that are most successful in mobilising the skills potential of their people share a number of features: they provide high-quality opportunities to learn throughout life, both in and outside school and the workplace; they develop education and training programmes that are relevant to students and the labour market; they create incentives for, and eliminate disincentives to, supplying skills in the labour market; they recognise and make maximal use of available skills in workplaces; they seek to anticipate future skills needs and they make learning and labour market information easy to find and use.

The OECD Skills Strategy provides countries with a framework for developing co-ordinated and coherent policies that support the development, activation, and effective use of skills. In Norway, our collaboration clearly demonstrated the value of a whole of government approach to tackle the country’s longstanding skills challenges. The diagnostic and action reports fed into policy measures to improve career guidance and outreach to low-skilled adults – and served as the foundations for the new National Skills Strategy to be launched this year. Portugal used our project to build broad stakeholder engagement in defining the key skills challenges facing the country as it emerged from the worst economic crisis of its history. This year we will be using our shared diagnosis to help design concrete actions to provide adult education and training across the country. Korea has built on the results of its diagnostic report and ongoing OECD support to engage actively with a wide range of stakeholders on critical issues such as youth employability and lifelong learning.

Mexico finds itself in a context with many other countries moving at a high speed. The digitalisation of the economy and the rapid pace of change require not only a good knowledge basis, but also lifelong learning and the flexibility to adapt skills to changing conditions and demands. The future of work and the capacity to anticipate the evolving needs of the markets, due to the rapid technological progress, is a common challenge that all countries are trying to address. Mexico has been participating in the OECD Skills Strategy project to work with us to advance the best practices of other countries that have been able to improve their outcomes in this field.

Mapping Mexico’s skills challenges together

Since March 2016, we have been working closely with Mexico in applying the OECD Skills Strategy framework as part of a collaborative project to build a more effective national skills strategy. The National Project Team established by the Mexican government to oversee this process is co-ordinated by the National Productivity Committee (NPC) and includes representatives from Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Economic Affairs and the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT). The CNP has been critical in this process, as it embodies the spirit of partnership across government ministries and with key sectors of the economy and society as well as focuses on the nexus between productivity, inclusive growth and skills.
The results of this work are published in the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Mexico that sets out 8 skills challenges for Mexico. These challenges were identified in the course of several rounds of discussions with the National Project Team, technical meetings with Mexico’s leading experts and input from over 100 stakeholders such as employers, trade unions, education providers and experts including from other International Organizations, gathered during two interactive workshops held in June 2016 and September 2016 in Mexico City.

Mexico’s 8 skills challenges

So what are the main skills challenges facing Mexico today?
With regard to developing relevant skills, the report concludes that Mexico should focus on:
Improving the foundation skills of students in compulsory education
Increasing access to tertiary education while improving the quality and relevance of the skills developed in tertiary education.

When it comes to activating its skills supply, Mexico will need to tackle the challenges of:
Removing supply and demand-side barriers to activating skills in (formal) employment.
Boosting the skills activation of vulnerable groups.

Mexico could make more effective use of the skills it already has by: 
Improving the use of skills at work.
Supporting the demand for higher skills to boost innovation

Finally, Mexico could strengthen the overall governance of the skills system by: 
Supporting collaboration across government and stakeholders to achieve better skills outcomes
Improving public and private skills funding.

Building a shared road-map for action

As the first OECD country from Latin America to embark upon a National Skills Strategy country project, Mexico has demonstrated its commitment to leveraging international comparative data and good practice to tackle its own skills challenges. Equally, this analysis of Mexico’s skills system will be of great interest to many other countries around the world.

Throughout this initial diagnostic phase, we have witnessed first-hand a strong commitment to improving Mexico’s skills outcomes across government, employers and trade unions, as well as education and training providers.

The true test lies ahead, in designing concrete actions to tackle the skills challenges facing Mexico. Government cannot achieve better skills outcomes alone, so moving from diagnosis to action will require a whole of government and a whole of society approach.

The OECD stands ready to contribute to Mexico’s ongoing efforts to achieve its ambitious goals in designing and implementing better skills policies for better jobs and better lives.

Follow the conversation on twitter: #OECDSkills
Photo credit: Hands were a collaboration concept of teamwork @Shutterstock