Are countries ready to invest in early childhood education?

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

There is now a widespread consensus that high-quality early childhood education is critically important for children. Research continues to find that early childhood education can compensate for a lack of learning opportunities at home, and can help children begin to develop the social and emotional skills needed for success later in life. Few policy makers would now question the benefits of high-quality early childhood education.

As a result, early childhood education systems have expanded. As documented in Education at a Glance 2016, on average across OECD countries enrolment in pre-primary education among 3-year-olds rose from 54% in 2005 to 69% in 2014, and among 4-year-olds from 73% to 85%. Expansion policies include the extension of compulsory education to younger children, free or universal early childhood education, and the creation of programmes that integrate care with formal pre-primary education.

Yet, the available data show that many countries still have a long way to go. As the chart above illustrates, enrolment rates among 2- to 4-year-olds still fall below 50% in Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, the United States and in OECD partner countries Argentina and Colombia. In some countries that are known for the overall quality of their education, such as Australia, Finland, Japan and the Netherlands, enrolment rates among this age group do not exceed 70%.

Are countries hesitant to translate their acknowledgement of the benefits of early childhood education into adequate funding? A look at how early childhood education is financed suggests they are. The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief looks at how much governments allocate to early childhood education and where the money comes from. The overall picture is disappointing.

As seen in the chart above, overall annual public expenditure on early childhood education per pupil varies enormously, from close to USD 2 000 in Estonia to close to USD 18 000 in Norway. Most countries still spend less than USD 5 000 per pupil per year. In many countries there is still a large gap between public per-student funding in early childhood education and primary education; yet from an educational point of view, there are no valid arguments for being stingy with early childhood education.

The expansion of early childhood education coincided with radical changes in the economy. As more women entered the work force, the demand for childcare and early childhood education grew. But budget constraints, fiscal austerity following the economic crisis, and the increased cost of other levels of education made it difficult to keep up with the demand and with growing policy interest. Thus, many countries turned to various cost-sharing arrangements.

In most countries households continue to assume a large share of the financial burden. The conservative view that early childhood education is a kind of surrogate “family”, rather than an autonomous learning environment in its own right, provided some ideological justification for cost-sharing. The Education Indicators in Focus brief shows that, on average across OECD countries, the private sector finances 31% of expenditure on early childhood educational development programmes and 17% of pre-primary programmes. Another cost-sharing mechanism for early childhood education makes local and regional levels of government responsible for co-funding. On average across OECD countries, local governments provide 48% of total public funding, even before accounting for transfers from regional and central governments.

The overall picture of the economics of early childhood education is thus extremely complicated, with various sources of funding complementing each other, complex systems of transfers between levels of government, and intricate combinations of public and private funding. Different systems of tax credits and fiscal expenditures contribute to the complexity of the funding arrangements. As a result, governance, policy, oversight and accountability arrangements are also often complicated and sometimes even contradictory. Clearly, these are not the most favourable conditions for expanding early childhood education.

Yet, as the chart above illustrates, there are also countries that seem to have committed themselves to allocating adequate resources to early childhood education. It is interesting to see that higher levels of funding also correlate with higher levels of participation. With the exception of Estonia, Israel and Spain, countries that attract over 80% of 2- to 4-year-olds to early childhood education also ensure relatively high per-student funding from public sources.

Early childhood education can no longer be seen as a luxury; it is neither just a welcome add-on to those education systems that can afford it nor dispensable to those that can’t. The evidence of its benefits for both individuals and society as a whole is just too overwhelming to justify the kinds of timid funding policies that are revealed in the data.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 52 –  Who bears the cost of early childhood education and how does it affect enrolment?
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Starting Strong 2017 – Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care
Starting Strong V – Transitions from Early Childhood Education and Care to Primary Education

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Chart source: Semeraro, G. (2017), Who bears the cost of early childhood education and how does it affect enrolment?, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 52, OECD Publishing, Paris, DOI:

Investigating the complexities of school funding

by Deborah Nusche
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Back in 2013, when we launched the OECD's first international review of school resource policies, we may not have been fully prepared for the detective-type work we were getting into. The OECD Review of School Resources covers 18 school systems and aims to shed light on a part of education policy that has been surprisingly left in the dark.

Today, we publish our first thematic report on the funding of school education. The research conducted for this study involved intensive field visits to 10 countries, which made tangible the challenges of reviewing school funding policies.

In several systems, information on the formulas used to calculate funding levels for schools was not readily available. In a range of countries, including Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, school funding policies are a local responsibility and there may be as many different funding formulas as there are local authorities.

But even in more centralised systems, authorities could rarely point us to a single document providing all elements considered in the national funding approach. Several times, we were told that only a handful of people in the system actually understood the funding scheme. Luckily, in most cases we were able to meet these rare funding master minds.

The many actors we spoke to in schools, education administrations and representative organisations also helped us understand the funding mechanisms from their perspective. In one country, we analysed a sample of letters received by schools from the ministry on their funding allocation, and deduced from these the main school funding principles.

The funding approaches we uncovered in countries as diverse as Austria, Belgium, Chile, the Czech Republic and Estonia were of greater or lesser complexity. In some systems, fragmented governance structures are reducing the clarity, co-ordination and transparency of funding flows. In others, the formulas used to calculate per-student funding are so complicated that they effectively prevent those who use them from fully understanding them. Such complexity makes policy discussions difficult, if not impossible.

Moreover, countries typically supplement the main funding streams with additional targeted funds. In Uruguay, there are over 130 different programmes targeted at improving equity in education, which involve the funding of specific groups of students or schools. The use of targeted programmes can help convey policy objectives, promote greater equity and allow better steering of the use of public resources. But a multiplication of such programmes risks generating inefficiencies, greater administrative costs and a lack of long-term sustainability for schools.

Comparing funding approaches across countries adds another layer of complexity. Definitions vary across countries, and describing complex policies in simple comparative tables may betray the logic of individual systems. In close collaboration with its Group of National Experts on School Resources, the OECD study produced a set of country profiles for the participating systems, as well as internationally comparative tables for several aspects of their funding systems. These are analysed based on findings from international research, narrative reports collected from participating countries, and the conclusions of individual country visits.

The resulting synthesis report, which was co-funded by the European Commission, is the first in a series of thematic reports on school resources, which collectively aim to help improve school resource policies across the OECD. Not surprisingly, one of the report's main recommendations is for schools and school systems to be more transparent about their funding policies and how resources are distributed. The presentation of clear criteria that can be scrutinised and negotiated can help stimulate public debate and stakeholder support of a given approach as a fair method of funding.

The report also makes a strong case for school funding policies to be connected to educational objectives. This needs to happen at all levels of a school system. Central and sub-central funding strategies need to make explicit the goals that they aim to achieve, and public reporting should present funding information alongside information on the quality and equity of a school system. At the school level, school leaders with responsibility for resources need to be prepared for strategic budgeting in a framework of learning-centred leadership. They also need support in the more technical aspects of budgeting so that they can focus on the strategic aspects of formulating their school's budget.

The report provides analysis, policy options and examples from around the world on the following aspects of school funding policy:

  • Connecting funding strategies to education goals 
  • Aligning roles and responsibilities in complex funding systems 
  • Building capacity for strategic school funding 
  • Developing a stable and publicly known system for funding allocation
  • Striking a balance between regular and targeted funding 
  • Using adequate indicators to target disadvantage
  • Being transparent about the use of funds 
  • Bringing together evaluative information on inputs, processes and outcomes 
  • Paying particular attention to evaluating the equity outcomes of school funding


Realising Slovenia’s bold vision for skills

by Andreas Schleicher 
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Small in size but not in its ambitions, Slovenia has a bold vision for a society in which people learn for and through life, are innovative, trust one another, enjoy a high quality of life and embrace their unique identity and culture.

So how does a country of 2 million people, with an export-oriented economy still recovering from the financial crisis, realise such ambitious goals?

People’s skills – what they know and can do with what they know – are at the heart of all countries’ prosperity. Technological change, globalisation and population ageing all magnify the importance of people’s skills. Recognising this, Slovenia embarked on a journey involving nine government ministries and offices and over 100 stakeholders to map Slovenia’s main skills challenges.

A series of interactive workshops in Ljubljana in 2016 provided a unique forum in which educators, employers, students, employee representatives, government officials and others discussed Slovenia’s skills challenges and opportunities. Participants underscored the need to encourage young people to be independent and creative thinkers. They wanted to make Slovenia more attractive to high-skilled workers, a place which embraces a culture of entrepreneurship and makes co-operation between government and citizens the new way of working.

Slovenia’s nine skills challenges

The OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Slovenia, published today, builds on these insights as well as comparative data and policy analysis from the OECD, the European Commission and national sources. The report identifies nine skills challenges for Slovenia as it seeks to achieve its economic, social and environmental ambitions.

People need to develop skills for economic and social success in an ever-changing world, early in life and through life. The report concludes that Slovenia faces the challenges of:

  • Equipping young people with relevant skills for work and life
  • Improving the skills of low-skilled adults who did dot have the kind of educational opportunities their children now enjoy

Creating conditions in which people want to work and firms are able to hire will be essential to Slovenia’s future prosperity. When it comes to activating its skills supply, Slovenia will need to tackle the challenges of:

  • Boosting employment for all age groups
  • Attracting and retaining talent from Slovenia and abroad

Promoting workplace cultures, practices and systems that spur workers and employers to put skills to use in workplaces can lead to higher wages, job satisfaction and labour productivity. Here, Slovenia faces the challenges of:

  • Making the most of people’s skills in workplaces
  • Using skills for entrepreneurship and innovation

Finally, Slovenia must ensure that the overall settings of the skills system – governance, information and financing – work coherently to achieve the best possible skills outcomes. This requires:

  • Inclusive and effective governance of the skills system
  • Enabling better decisions through improved skills information
  • Financing and taxing skills equitably and efficiently

Moving from diagnosis to action

Slovenia can now build upon this strategic assessment of the national skills system to develop an integrated set of actions to tackle its skills challenges.

The report identifies three themes emerging from this work that can help to frame future action:

1. Empowering active citizens with the right skills for the future: Slovenia, like other OECD countries, is grappling with the question of which skills are most essential for economic and social success in the future. There is no definitive answer to this question. Yet success will likely require that people develop a portfolio of cognitive, socio-emotional and discipline-specific skills that equip them to continue learning, interact with others and solve increasingly complex problems. A responsive and resilient national skills system will be essential. Slovenia needs to do a better job of ensuring that all actors play their part in creating, using and responding to high-quality information on skills needs.

2. Building a culture of lifelong learning: Ensuring that all actors – individuals, employers, educators, policy makers and others – believe and are invested in the value of learning at every stage of life will be crucial for the future prosperity and well-being of Slovenians. How adult learning is delivered and supported needs to be rethought, to make it accessible to all while demonstrating to individuals and employers the tangible benefits of upskilling and reskilling throughout life.

3. Working together to strengthen skills: The experience of the National Skills Strategy project in Slovenia has not only confirmed the value of co-operation between different ministries and stakeholders, but the importance of making this co-operation more systematic. The surest path to improving skills outcomes will be to work together today, based on a shared vision for the future.

Building on the significant momentum achieved during the Diagnostic Phase, Slovenia now has a unique opportunity to mobilise government and stakeholders to take concrete actions to improve skills outcomes. The OECD stands ready to accompany Slovenia in its next phase of the journey towards prosperity and well-being, building on the skills of its people.

For more on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
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Rethinking the learning environment

by Rose Bolognini
Communications and Publications Co-ordinator, Directorate for Education and Skills

What do innovative learning environments around the world look like? How might they be led and evaluated? What policy strategies stimulate and support them? For the past decade the OECD’s Centre for Education Research and Innovation (CERI) has addressed these and similar questions in an international study called Innovative Learning Environments.

Now drawing on their extensive research within this project  – from the nature of learning, to innovative cases, to leadership and strategies – CERI has translated these findings into a practical handbook, aimed at educators, leaders and innovative policy-shapers. It gives a set of tools based on this extensive international knowledge source as well as succinct summaries of the research accessible to practitioners.

The handbook is divided into four chapters:

i) The principles of learning to design learning environments;
ii) The OECD “7+3” framework for innovative learning environments;
iii) Learning leadership and evaluative thinking; and
iv) Transformation and change in learning ecosystems.

Altogether, fourteen tools are included – some might be covered in a single workshop session while others ideally need a couple of years to work through (with most in between).

Take the first chapter on the learning principles. These principles emphasise flexibility and autonomy, placing learners at the centre and treat learning as collaborative where educators are highly attuned to learners’ emotions and what motivates them. It is an environment where diversity is embraced, the learner is challenged but not exhausted and overwhelmed, expectations are clear and formative feedback is encouraged. It is also an environment that urges learners to make connections across areas of knowledge and subjects as well as with the wider community.

There are four tools presented to help educators fully understand these fundamental principles. Let’s work through the first one to give a flavour of the handbook. It is called “How well do we embed the learning principles?”. There are five steps outlined, intended to push schools or networks or districts to think about whether they exemplify what makes young people learn best and to gather evidence to back up their answers. The steps range from “familiarisation with the principles” to “overviewing the existing situation” and “deciding on a course of action”. The last step invites schools to come back and review their progress after allowing some time to pass.

The handbook also provides tools for educators to focus on the changing landscape of leadership – no longer a one person job at the top but a shared, collaborative responsibility between teachers, learners and the wider community. And just as formative feedback is systematically integrated in the classroom so should leaders continuously question and evaluate the educational innovation taking place.

And what might these changing learning environments look like? Even though the handbook and previous research discuss how traditional environments can transform,  it would be useful to be able to measure education systems’ development towards and implementation of innovative learning environments. Now in 2017, CERI has launched a new study on Innovative Pedagogies for Powerful Learning to take this initiative a step further  – looking more in depth at teaching and learning. In this context, the OECD Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments is not the end point – but one resource in the rich mix of analyses and reflections that will inspire innovative change in the classroom.

The OECD Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments 
The Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) project 
The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

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Priming up for primary school

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Why do children in their last year of pre-primary education spend so much time playing and the year after sitting in large classes listening to their teacher? Why do we pay the teachers of our youngest children so much less than we pay the teachers of our oldest children? Why do first-year primary teachers know so little about the children from whom their pre-primary teachers have learned so much? The simple answer is that that’s the way we have always done this.

But we have learned so much about how children learn and what they learn best at what stage of their development, that we can, and should, do a lot better. It is time for this knowledge and experience to shape education policy and practice more distinctly. To this end, the OECD has just published its first internationally comparative set of indicators on early childhood education and care and, more than that, we analysed what more can be done to shift the focus from making our youngest ready for school toward serving them and their parents best to build solid foundations for their.

This is important. The first years of life lay the foundations for future skills development and learning, and investments in high-quality early childhood education and care pay huge dividends in terms of children’s long-term learning and development, particularly the most marginalised ones. Most OECD countries recognise this, and this is reflected in our indicators which show the steeply rising enrolment and spending figures. These efforts should not underestimated. In most industrialised nations, early childhood education has advanced from a service for a minority of children to virtually universal enrolment for at least one year. However, for the youngest children, provision remains patchy. Beyond that, the benefits of early learning can fade during the first years of primary school if the transitions between early childhood education and care and primary schooling are not well-prepared, or if continuity in quality is not ensured. For many children, the transition from the last period of early childhood education to the start of primary school is a big culture change – in the people surrounding them, the ways in which they interact, their number of peers, the types of activities they are engaged in, and their physical surroundings. This often gets compounded by a fragmentation in services, difficulties in engaging all relevant actors, weak collaboration among stakeholders, and simply poor knowledge management across institutional boundaries.

Quality transitions that are well-prepared and child centred, managed by highly educated staff who are collaborating professionally, and guided by appropriate and aligned curricula, can go a long way to ensure that  the positive impacts of early learning and care will last through primary school and beyond.

But there is more to successful transitions. This starts with professional continuity. In most, but not all countries we surveyed, preschool and primary teachers already have access to training on transitions, and qualification levels required for preschool and primary teachers are increasingly brought into line. But pre-primary teachers have often still less working time than their primary school peers for tasks outside the classroom. There are also discrepancies between the status and perspectives of early childhood and primary school teachers, lack of relevant training and support on transitions at both levels, and structural hurdles to co-operation and co-ordination.

Curriculum and pedagogical continuity is equally important. On the one hand, many countries have made efforts to better align or integrate their curricula, ensuring that instructional techniques and strategies do not vary too much across transitions. However, in the majority of jurisdictions, children have a less favourable staff-child ratio during their first year of primary school than during their final year of pre-primary education. Add to this differences and inconsistencies in curricula, a lack of a shared pedagogical understanding of staff in early childhood education and schools, and inconsistent delivery of pedagogy during transitions.

Developmental continuity is also important. The report portrays many efforts of preparing children, parents and teachers for the transition to primary school, but important differences remain among jurisdictions in their recognition of the importance of children’s participation in transition preparations, in their capacity to raise awareness among parents on the importance of the transition process, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in promoting closer collaboration between early childhood and primary school staff, and in increasing co-operation with other child development services.

More can also be done to align working conditions of preschool and primary school teachers: increase flexibility and responsiveness to individual communities, families and children, while at the same time strengthening coherence of services; overcome structural and informational roadblocks to co-operation and continuity; and to better facilitate collaboration among staff, managers, parents and the community based on reciprocal communication, inclusivity, mutual trust and respect.

The report makes a start to build a comparative evidence base on effective early childhood and care policies and practices, but it recognises that there remain important gaps in our knowledge base. That is encouragement for us at the OECD to push the frontiers further. As a next step, we will be conducting our first survey of staff in early childhood education care, to give these staff their own voice, which is badly lacking in current policy development. The survey seeks to identify strengths and opportunities for early childhood learning and well-being environments, with an emphasis on professional and pedagogical practises, but will also take a close look at the work organisation, careers and rewards of staff. Further down the road, we will try to broaden the range of early learning outcomes that are currently measured, to ensure that these don’t remain limited to cognitive aspects, but instead give due attention to the social and emotional qualities of children where early action can make such a huge difference.

Starting Strong 2017: Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care
Starting Strong V: Transitions from Early Childhood Education and Care to Primary Education 

OECD work on Early Childhood Education and Care

Register for a public webinar on Wednesday, 21 June, 17h00 Central European Summer Time (Paris, GMT +02:00) with Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Education and Skills Directorate, Miho Taguma, Senior Analyst and Éric Charbonnier, Analyst in the Early Childhood and Schools division.

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