What happens with your skills when you leave school?

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

Mean literacy and numeracy score, by age and education enrolment status
OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), 2012 or 2015

Moving from the world of school to the world of work is one of the most dramatic changes in the lives of young people. And for many youngsters this transition does not go smoothly. Spells of frictional or longer-term unemployment, job insecurity because of low-paid or temporary contracts, and the uncertainties associated with starting to live autonomously produce a challenging phase in young people’s lives. The most vulnerable people are those who fall between the two systems: the so-called NEETs (not in employment, education or training), who are no longer in school and are either unemployed or inactive. Some 6% of 15-19 year-olds in OECD countries – in other words, half of those of that age who have left school, or around 5 million young people – are NEET.

A new Education Indicators in Focus brief looks at the transition from school to work across different age groups. It reconfirms that leaving school is much less difficult if one has acquired an upper secondary qualification, which functions as a kind of security mechanism against most of the hardships associated with the transition. The share of 20-24 year-old NEETs who do not have an upper secondary qualification (36%) is double the share of employed 20-24 year-olds who have not attained that level of education (18%).
But an educational qualification is one thing; the actual skills that people have are another. The brief publishes some new and interesting findings about the skills disparities among young people in different age groups in and out of school. The chart above shows the difference in mean literacy and numeracy skills between people in and out of education in three different age groups. The differences are remarkable. Among 16-19 year-olds, the difference in skills amounts to the equivalent of around 2.5 years of schooling. But the differences among older age groups are also considerable – and they remain significant even after controlling for educational attainment.
The finding lends itself to various possible explanations and observations. The most obvious one is that the results reflect a selection effect: more-skilled young people tend to stay in school while the less-skilled leave. A skills-selection effect does not seem to be problematic among 20-24 and 25-29 year-olds, when continuing one’s education is based on educational merit. For the younger age group, however, the difference in skills signals an efficiency problem in our education systems. Less-skilled young people should leave school only after they have acquired a foundation level of skills. When dropping out of school at an early age is the result of a skills-selection mechanism, than we are not serving our most vulnerable youngsters well.
Another possible explanation looks at the skills difference from the other side of the transition: the labour market and the world of work. This hypothesis suggests that leaving school and entering the labour market is accompanied by a process of de-skilling. When skills are not used in employment, they erode. A difficult school-to-work transition can have a scarring effect that can last throughout an entire career. De-skilling can happen through unemployment, but also through employment in precarious jobs, where workers do not fully use their skills, or through employment in an ill-matched job. This hypothesis suggests that a difficult transition process can undermine what should be a social benefit: essentially, the investment in skills acquisition is wasted.
The policy consequences are clear: there are many reasons for governments to be concerned about the school-to-work transition. Dropping out of school at an early age without a proper qualification has a huge social cost. Policies to provide guidance and support to young people during that transition pay off: there is less risk that people become unemployed or fall between the cracks and become dependent on welfare systems. And such policies should encourage people to maintain their skills and give them the opportunity to improve their skills through quality work and training. The political responsibility to ensure a smooth transition is enormous, but it is also shared between the work of education and the world of work.
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Chart source: OECD (2017), in Education Indicators in Focus No. 54, Figure 3. 

Do countries have to choose between more educated or better-educated children?

by Francesco Avvisati
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

While Joana, a 15-year-old girl from Fortaleza in Brazil, was sitting the PISA test in 2015, her cousin, also 15 but living in the countryside, was busy working in the family business. In fact, by the time they turn 15, many adolescents in low- and middle-income countries are no longer enrolled in school (or have never been), particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. But soon, those children may be able to sit a PISA test specifically designed for out-of-school youth.

Increasing the educational attainment of young adults has been the focus of much effort over recent decades. But we all know that having children spend more time in school does not guarantee that every student will learn. For this reason, the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4), which defines the new global agenda for education and was adopted by the United Nations in September 2015, emphasises improvements in the quality of education and learning outcomes, rather than increases in time spent at school.

This challenging goal urges countries not only to increase access to education, but also to improve the skills of students who are already in school. If you think it is impossible to do both at the same time, you probably have not yet read the latest PISA in Focus.

This month’s issue investigates what happened to the PISA results of countries, such as Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Jordan, Mexico, Turkey and Uruguay, all of which expanded their education systems to include previously excluded – and mostly disadvantaged – populations. Perhaps surprisingly, for many of them, average performance improved.

PISA shows that the goals of more inclusive and better-quality education can go hand in hand in low- and middle-income countries when governments are committed to measuring the outcomes of schooling. In other words, it shows that countries do not have to choose between quality and quantity. While dismantling the barriers to schooling, countries can also help every student acquire the skills they need to thrive in increasingly knowledge-intensive economies.

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“Youth are not the future; they are the present”

Interview with Oley Dibba-Wadda, Executive Secretary of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) 

by Marilyn Achiron, Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Oley Dibba-Wadda is the dynamic (and first female) Executive Secretary of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). The organisation’s mission is to assist in “the transformation of education and training to drive Africa’s accelerated and sustainable development”. We spoke with Dibba-Wadda in June when she participated in the OECD Forum in Paris.

Marilyn Achiron: What do you consider to be the greatest challenge facing African youth today? 

Oley Dibba-Wadda: The challenge that youth are facing, first and foremost, is skills for employability. It is a fundamental issue. What we have realised in education is that going to school has not necessarily translated into quality learning. The learning being taught in schools does not resonate with the current job market. Then there is the issue of financing capital investment for youth who want to go outside of the formal employment system, to go into small and medium enterprises, to go into agriculture, to start their own little businesses.

MA: Do you feel that these challenges are qualitatively different from the challenges facing youth in Europe or America right now?

OD-W: I don’t think they’re qualitatively different. Youth in Europe have better opportunities; but the mindset, the needs, the wants, the thinking, the aspirations are the same. There are better opportunities here [in Europe] than on the African continent, and for me, that’s what the difference is.
All youth are asking for is opportunities, opportunities, opportunities. They know what they want, they know where they want to go, they know how to get there. What they’re challenged with is the financing to do what they want to do, and to have youth champions: adults in influential positions who can be champions to advocate for [them]. Youth want agency: they want to be able to do things the way they want to. We keep saying “they are the future”. They’re not the future; they are the present. We need to acknowledge and appreciate that.

MA: What would be needed to improve the alignment between what students are learning in school and what the labour market demands?

OD-W: First of all, we have to appreciate that the African continent is very diverse. The education system in Francophone West Africa is completely different from the education system in Francophone Central Africa; the education system in Anglophone West Africa is different from that in Anglophone East Africa. We need to contextualise each system of education. What type of education is required? What I was taught when I was going to school was education for a white-collar job: going to school, holding a briefcase, having a suit and tie. That’s what we were trying to instil in our own children, and that’s what [today’s youth] is thinking. What we need is a paradigm shift of mindset to get our kids to look at being self-employed, to start thinking outside of the box, to start learning to do, learning to be more innovative. But also to learn to find jobs that resonate with their interests.

I mentor a lot of youth in Africa, and one thing that comes up is not just the issue of hard skills for employment and employability, but soft, emotional life-skills, such as the ability to speak in public, to express themselves, to read and write basics… to be able to take risks and jump, to express themselves, to feel motivated and inspired. A+ students might not be able to prepare themselves for the world of work because they lack self-esteem, they do not have the confidence to be assertive, to ask questions.

MA: Is that something that can be taught in school?

OD-W: It should be; it has not been done. Our education systems are preparing our youth for examinations; they are not preparing them for work.

MA: As the head of a pan-African organisation, how do you hope to shape each individual country’s approach towards education?

OD-W: Our role is to engage more with policy makers. We do not implement activities, per se; we engage at a higher political level. We engage with the policy makers, ministers, heads of state, the permanent secretaries, administrators within the ministries of education. ADEA also provides capacity-building support to these ministries on best practices. So we say, for example, to a country like Angola: “Rwanda is doing something fantastic. You may want to go there and explore what they’re doing and see how you can adapt that to your context” because the environments are different; you cannot cut-and-paste. We also explore what is happening in other parts of the world. Finland has a very good education system. We engage with the minister in an African country and encourage the minister to go and do a study tour in Finland.

MA: Do you feel that African countries can learn lessons from countries in other parts of the world, and vice versa?

OD-W: They can and they could and they should. But what they shouldn’t be doing is transferring the same model from there and expecting it to work. We have a lot of donor agencies and partners who come in and say “We’re interested in supporting early childhood education; this is something we have done in South America and we want to do it in a particular country in Africa”. And we just take that model and do it because there is money attached to it. So what we have been doing in Africa is following the money, rather than using our own blueprint and saying, “You have this plan, but this is what we feel would be beneficial to us.”

We need to encourage our countries not to follow the money, but to have their own blueprint and then go out and invite [assistance from outside countries]. What we’re trying to think of now at ADEA is how to get countries to take responsibility for education as a global public good….ADEA is trying to engage with all stakeholders, both within the African continent and outside, to set up an African education fund [the African Development Bank is supporting a feasibility study for this fund]. There are so many funds out there that are being used for education in Africa and it’s just not working. So if we have an African education fund that is managed for Africans, by Africans, and [countries] take responsibility for this, then they can invite other stakeholders to contribute money so we can create an education system for Africans that resonates with the current state of the job market…If we continue to have funding coming from the outside, of course: he who pays the piper determines the tune. That’s what we are struggling with now.


Photo credit: @shutterstock 

Improving education outcomes for Indigenous students

by Andreas Schleicher 
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Indigenous peoples are the first inhabitants of their lands, but are often poorly served by the education systems in their countries. Why? Is it necessary to wait until issues such as poverty or appropriate legal recognition for Indigenous peoples are resolved? Can education systems be expected to address Indigenous students’ needs relating to language, culture and identity? Can non-Indigenous teachers be effective teachers of Indigenous students? How can Indigenous parents have confidence that their children are safe at school and receiving a high-quality education?

Indigenous students do well in some schools more than in other schools and in some education systems more than in other education systems. Pockets of excellence and promising practices rarely translate across systems or across schools within a single education system. Thus, education systems and individual schools seldom learn from each other about what it takes to improve education for Indigenous students. Learning from examples of success can enable systems and schools to do better and accelerate improvements for Indigenous students.

An OECD report, Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students, released on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August 2017), highlights examples of success by Indigenous students and how these successes have been achieved. These examples can be used to help education systems improve education outcomes for Indigenous students and to quicken the pace of doing so.

OECD analysis of progress across six Canadian provinces and territories, New Zealand and Queensland, Australia shows that success for Indigenous students in education is becoming a priority. These jurisdictions have a clear will and commitment to improve, and have put in place many initiatives to address challenges and accelerate positive change. In some cases, the improvements are clearly evident; in others, the efforts are not yet at a scale to make a difference or have not been in place for a sufficient period to affect Indigenous students’ education. Achieving progress requires the deliberate decision to do so and then a concerted effort to do enough to improve each Indigenous student’s experience in education.

Providing high-quality, early childhood education and care (ECEC) for Indigenous children sets them on an early pathway towards success. High-quality ECEC is culturally responsive to the needs of Indigenous children and their families. It encourages Indigenous children to be confident and curious, and builds social, emotional and early cognitive skills. It also means working in partnership with Indigenous parents to better meet their children’s needs. Such ECEC is best provided in Indigenous communities, where these children live, and should be both accessible to and affordable for their parents.

Another ingredient of success is establishing respectful and trusting relationships with Indigenous leaders and communities, both at the system governance level and at the individual school level. Schools that build genuine partnerships with Indigenous communities achieve much more for Indigenous students than schools that do not engage with these students’ communities and homes. The benefits of such partnerships are evident in student participation and attendance rates, and in indicators of student learning and achievement.

School principals can make all the difference – or not. In schools where Indigenous students are achieving well, there is generally a highly effective and committed school principal who has done “whatever it takes” to ensure Indigenous students attend school, are engaged in learning and are positive about their futures. These schools tend to use a “whole-of-child” approach that puts children’s overall well-being as the key priority. Effective principals also set high expectations for teachers and take responsibility for monitoring Indigenous students’ academic progress, to ensure targets are being met and that any needed interventions are put in place in a timely manner.

Teachers also need support, to build their capability and confidence in establishing relationships with and teaching students from communities with which they may not be familiar. With the right support, teachers can build both their cultural competence and effective teaching strategies, such as the use of the history and geography of the school community, so that they elicit the best out of all of their students. 

Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students
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Photo credit: Christopher David Rothecker

How education can spur progress towards inclusive growth

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Costa Rica is recognised across Latin America as a leader in education. The country was among the first in the region to enrol all children in primary school and combat adult illiteracy. Today, one in two young adults has completed secondary education, up from one in three among their parents’ generation. But, the demands placed on the skills of people have evolved as well. The overall context has become more challenging too: Economic growth has slowed, inequality is rising and productivity is weak in a labour market that shows a growing divide between a well-paid, high-skilled sector and a precarious informal economy. The OECD report, Education in Costa Rica, looks at how education can help Costa Rica turn these negative trends around.

The first step is to build strong foundations. Pre-primary education has become nearly universal in most OECD countries; but in Costa Rica, only 63% of children benefit from two years of preschool, and very few children under three have access to any form of early care and education. Strong, sustained support to promising initiatives, such as the new policy framework for early childhood and the preschool curriculum, will ensure that more children start school with the socio-emotional and cognitive skills that they need to learn. More flexible community-based services can accelerate the expansion of early education into rural areas.

The quality of education can never exceed the quality of teachers. Costa Rica is working towards ensuring minimum standards in the teaching profession by requiring private universities to accredit initial teaching degrees. The challenge  now is to advance from recruiting those candidates with the greatest potential for effective teaching towards promoting continuous professional development through regular feedback and more opportunities for peer learning within and across schools.

If all students are to complete at least secondary school, then the content, structure and certification of learning at this level need to respond to an increasingly diverse student population. Nearly one in three 15-year-olds is not in school, and among those who are, another one in three lacks core competencies in science, reading and mathematics. The programme Yo me Apunto, which allocates more resources to disadvantaged schools to prevent students from dropping out, should be supported and combined with an expansion of vocational courses and alternative forms of certification to help more students make a smooth transition from school to employment.

Costa Rica’s tertiary sector also has an important role to play  in fostering inclusive growth. Just one in ten students from a disadvantaged background makes it to university, and only 12% of tertiary programmes have been accredited. It is time for Costa Rica to embrace comprehensive reform of the governance, funding and quality-assurance systems of both private and public universities to respond to changing social and economic needs. This, in turn, requires much better data on tertiary performance so that students can make informed choices about their future, and institutions can be held accountable for meeting their own and their country’s objectives.

Costa Rica is rightly admired for making education the cornerstone of its development. It invests 7.6% of its GDP in education – a larger share than that of any OECD country. But those resources need to be invested strategically. If it does so, Costa Rica will be able to spur more inclusive growth and build on its remarkable achievements in human development and well-being.

Reviews of National Policies for Education: Education in Costa Rica
Brochure: Education in Costa Rica, Highlights 2017 (English) and (Spanish)
Press release: Costa Rica should ensure that all children have access to quality education (English) and (Spanish)
Slides: Avances y desafíos de la educación en Costa Rica: una perspectiva internacional (Spanish)

Photo credit: MEP (Ministerio de Educación Pública)