Education is the ‘big equaliser’? Increasingly not so in Europe and US, says OECD guru.

Janet Downs's picture
The biggest challenges to social mobility are growing disparities in income and employment, says Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)*.

In countries like Finland and South Korea social mobility was rising. But this isn’t the case in the USA and parts of Europe. Although tuition fees hadn’t put young people applying to England’s universities, there was growing unemployment among young undergraduates not just in England but elsewhere. This resulted in stagnant or falling social mobility among these young people.

Nevertheless, the acquisition of skills is essential for a growing economy and reducing inequality, Schleicher says, and education systems which are equitable help break down barriers.

But England’s educational system is not equitable. Evidence shows the presence of fee-paying schools and/or selective schools increases social segregation and worsens the effect of socio-economic background.

Schleicher was speaking prior to the launch of OECD's report on universal basic skills. This will take place today at 9.30am (Eastern Standard Time) in Washington DC.

Despite the report not being publicly available yet, it has been widely reported. The Guardian is typical:

‘Economy could grow by more than £2tn by 2095 if underachievers learn basic skills at school and gender gap in some subjects is ended.’

It’s unclear what model was used to calculate the UK economy would be £2tn better off in 80 years time. A lot can happen between now and then. And I can’t read the report because it isn't in the public domain. By the time I’ve found it, this report will be yesterday’s news. We will be left with school minister Lord Nash’s gnashing of teeth:

“We still have children brought up in communities on the coast or mining towns who just live in a world of unemployment: their parents are unemployed, their grandparents are unemployed."

“It’s shocking that for generations we’ve allowed that to happen. We have to break that cycle, partly by welfare reform but mainly through education.”

It appears Lord Nash thinks high unemployment in mining districts is nothing to do with mine closure; lack of jobs in coastal towns is not due to their decline after package holidays in the sun replaced a week in English seaside resorts; or the policy of some councils of dumping homeless people in coastal bed-and-breakfasts doesn’t increase the number of unemployed people in these towns.

No – according to Lord Nash it’s all down to their feckless parents and grandparents. And he’s going to solve this with ‘benefit reform’ – that is, reducing the benefit these undeserving poor receive.

But it’s ‘mainly through education’ that basic skill acquisition will rise. And he’s right. But education in this context means lifelong learning not just compulsory schooling for children and teenagers.

Schleicher’s advice included:

1Ensure the most challenging schools attract the most-talented teachers and principals.

2Match resources with the challenges schools and pupils face.

3Bring education to those who need it most. This chimes with an earlier recommendation for lifelong learning.

The Government’s response to the first point is likely to be flooding challenging schools with enthusiastic but barely-trained and inexperienced Teach Firsters. This won’t do. Such schools need properly-trained and experienced staff. Yes, such schools should assist in teacher training but only if they feel mentoring trainees would not distract attention from educating pupils. Dispatching large numbers of trainee teachers (or, worse, untrained ones) will not help the pupils who need help most.

The second recommendation is helped by the Pupil Premium. This gives extra financial resources to schools which attract eligible pupils. But it needs spending on effective interventions (the EEF Toolkit helps decide what these are).

Bringing education to those who need it implies lifelong learning - raising skills within the existing workforce. But lifelong learning is declining in England. 16-19 education has been hit by funding cuts and the unequal, unfair treatment of sixth-form colleges. Adult participation in learning is falling – there was a 46% drop in part-time undergraduate entrants between 2010/11 and 2013/14, for example.

Education in England’s schools won’t be improved by ministers pushing Government-approved curriculum or their preferred teaching methods, increasing the number of academies and free schools, implementing exam reforms which move in the opposite direction to most of the developed world, or, looming on the horizon, suggesting academies outsource to ‘education providers’.

No doubt the Government will use the mantra of ‘mainly through education’ to underpin its policies. But, remember, those who make up this Government have a track record of distorting evidence and ensuring it says whatever supports ministers’ prejudices (even when it doesn’t). And when this fails, they can always cite UKTVGold or Premier Inn.

UPDATE 12.30am. TES says the figures, which put UK 20th out of the 'core 76 countries' for skills of 14/15 year olds, combined the latest results from Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) 'to compare skill levels in the subjects among pupils in 76 different countries'. But not all countries who took part in PISA took part in TIMMS. Vietnam, for example, didn't take part in TIMMS but the report says Vietnam outperforms UK in the 'skills' stakes. It's unclear, therefore, how the OECD managed to combine results when some results didn't exist.

When Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit attempted to combine international tests in their report, The Learning Curve, they warned about their analysis. Much data was missing, they said, and had to be estimated by, say, calculating missing test results by how well a country did in other tests. I don't know if the OECD's latest skills report contains a similar warning but to a non-statistician like me it seems combining results from tests when not all countries took both tests involves an element of guesswork.

*Listen to Schleicher in the video on the linked page.
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Kevin Anderson's picture
Wed, 13/05/2015 - 10:47

Same problem just occurred on Janet Downs: ‘What’s next for education?’ Book outlines aims for the new Government' when I attempted to reply to you.

I have emailed reports of posting problems as requested.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/05/2015 - 10:52

Thanks. I'll let LSN's technical boffin know. If you use Internet Explorer, that could be causing the problem. Try something different like Firefox or Google Chrome. I stopped using Internet Explorer ages ago - got fed up with things going wrong.

(The last three sentences were added after the original reply was posted.)

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/05/2015 - 11:48

TES reports OECD combined results from PISA and TIMSS to calculate countries' overall rankings. But not all countries took both PISA and TIMSS. Some guesswork, surely? See UPDATE 12.30am above for more details.

Kevin Anderson's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 05:54

Quite extraordinary how selective internet explorer is concerning my comments!

What taste at Microsoft! Who would have thought it!

Those technical boffins, eh!

agov's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 07:40

Janet - Some time ago there was a version of IE that did rightly attract quite a lot of criticism and that reputation has lingered hence the next version is apparently to be renamed as 'Spartan'.

The current problem with the site's software (so I'm told) happens to be with IE but any browser might function incorrectly on any site if the software throws up some sort of incompatibility with it. That's why site software needs to be tested for all the browsers. On this occasion it seems the testing on IE was incomplete.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 15/05/2015 - 12:12

I have had no trouble since I switched to Google Chrome.

agov's picture
Sat, 16/05/2015 - 08:50

Yes Roger. The problem is that the software needs fixing so that it works on all browsers not just some of them. Just like on any properly functioning site. Currently the issue seems only to be waiting for the supplier to find time to make the amendment.

David Barry's picture
Sat, 16/05/2015 - 21:51

It does depend on whether the incompatability is obvious. Some of these problems are dreadfully fiddly. It is also apparent that the comment posting activity on the site at present seems lower than usual.... Anyway I will be interested to see if this appears.

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