Excellence through Equity

by Max Rashbrooke
Journalist, SGI News

In social terms, it’s essential to invest in education.  A recent OECD report How was Life?, looking at global well-being since 1830 finds that, in terms education, there has been a massive improvement.  A lack of educational opportunities creates a vicious circle, in which those unable to get a decent education are denied opportunities for social betterment, the socially disadvantaged then struggle to access education, and so on. Breaking this vicious circle not only improves the lives of individuals; it helps maintain the social fabric. At the same time, it makes good economic sense to nourish every child’s talent, so that they grow up to be productive members of the workforce.

In its assessment of equitable education, the Bertelsmann Stiftung new study “Social Justice in the EU – A Cross-national Comparison” has ranked all 28 European Union countries’ educational policies in several dimensions. The extent to which children’s socio-economic status determines their school results is a key measure. But the report also looks at spending on early childhood education, and countries’ success in lowering the rates of students leaving school early. Finally, it includes an expert assessment of countries’ overall educational policies.

In general, those doing best in the rankings are three Nordic European Union member states (Denmark, Finland and Sweden), two Baltic countries (Estonia and Lithuania), and a European Union new entrant (Croatia). Britain’s ranking is slightly below average. The very worst performers are Malta, Portugal, Slovakia and Greece. The biggest improver has been Luxembourg, while the worst slide down the rankings has come in Slovakia.

Countries should not focus on excellence per se but on equity

Several of the top-ranked countries in terms of equitable access to education such as Estonia and Finland are also the best performers when it comes to reducing the influence of students’ social background on their educational performance. What lies behind this success?

If Finland is anything to go by, the answer is that if a country wants high achieving students, its best bet is – counter-intuitively – to focus not on excellence per se but on equity. Finland’s school system, which is dominated by public schools and has no national testing, has some of the best-performing students in the European Union, as shown in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Despite these excellent results, the Finns don’t relax their focus: their latest four-year education plan places a special emphasis on preventing poverty, inequality and exclusion.

Estonia can boast a similar record: top school results, with little influence of social background on students’ performance. This shows that a high degree of social justice and a well-performing school system are not incompatible goals; in fact, emphasising one often delivers the other.

Investing heavily in the early years also pays dividends. Students who have been in pre-primary education do better than those who have not, especially when they have been in it for several years and its facilities have small pupil-to-teacher ratios.

Some countries have picked up on the importance of the early years. Poland, for instance, is making big strides by insisting on compulsory preschool education. Overall, Bulgaria, Denmark and Hungary invest the most in early childhood education. This is especially important in the latter two countries, where the link between social background and academic achievement has historically been very strong. In contrast, Germany, despite having recently increased public spending on early-childhood education, is still only spending at about the average level for the EU, and does not place sufficient emphasis on high-quality early education.

Early school leavers rates are declining across the European Union – yet not evenly

Reducing the number of students leaving school early is another important objective. Early school leaver rates are declining across the EU, but some countries are doing much better than others. Spain has the worst early leaver rates, at nearly one in four of all students, a situation being made worse by austerity policies that are cutting spending on education.

Countries such as Croatia and Slovenia, by contrast, have exceptionally low rates of early leavers. However, there are fears that many of their students are parked in low-quality vocational courses that do not provide the skills employers need and therefore do not lead to good job opportunities.

There are, in contrast, few question marks over Germany’s justly famous vocational system. It is hugely important to the country’s functioning, with over half of all young workers having gone through the system. Helping reduce youth unemployment, it is well-calibrated to employers’ needs, and leads to strong job and income prospects.

It is, however, situated within a wider education system that is highly selective and segregated. Children are pushed down a particular path, whether it is academic or vocational, at a relatively early age. This tends to create a ‘twin-track’ approach, in which a child’s ability in early life – which tends to be heavily influence by their background – pushes them into a path that, to some extent,determines their fate for the rest of their life.

Avoiding early selection in schools is essential

In countries with early selection, educational success depends strongly on a child’s origin and socioeconomic background, and children from disadvantaged and immigrant backgrounds have much less chance of doing well at school than they would in other European Union countries.

In short, to advance social justice and equal access to educational opportunities, avoiding early selection is essential. Over and over, countries with early selection are marked out as having poor opportunities for the most disadvantaged. Luxembourg, for instance, has this issue, despite spending more per student than any other European Union country.

In Austria, experts have criticised the early division of children into multiple educational tracks. This policy means that parents’ social status very often influences whether children go onto higher education.

PISA results highlight another aspect of this issue. The earlier children are tracked and separated according to performance, the more influence their background has on their educational success. But the countries that do this early separation do not see their overall results rise. In other words, it is not possible to say that even if some children’s prospects are damaged by this approach, most children are better off.

The lesson to be drawn here is not too different from that provided by the Estonian and Finnish systems, which, as above, focus on equity and – as a by-product – also deliver excellence. School systems that don’t separate children out early seem to do better both on educational justice and in terms of learning success. And this exemplifies that social justice and economic progress, far from being competing ideas, are actually entirely compatible. In other words, you really can have your cake and eat it.

A forthcoming OECD Education Policy Outlook will provide policy makers with the policy options to deliver equity and quality in education,  such as investing in early childhood education and care (ECEC), tackling system-level policies that may hinder equity (such as grade repetition, unsupported school choice or early tracking) and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Education Policy Outlook
How was Life?
PISA 2012 Results
OECD work on Early Childhood Education and Care
Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education : Policy Lessons from Around the World
Related blog posts:
OECD educationtoday: Building the knowledge economy
Photo credit: Toys seesaw wooden blocks / @Shutterstock

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