by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Skills Beyond School Division, Directorate for Education and Skills
Education plays a dual role when it comes to social inequality and social mobility. On the one hand, it is the main way for societies to foster equality of opportunity and support upward social mobility for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming that education often reproduces social divides in societies, through the impact that parents’ economic, social and cultural status has on children’s learning outcomes.
The social divide is already apparent very early in the life of a child, in the time their parents spend on parenting or in the number of words a toddler learns. It progresses through early childhood education and becomes most obvious in the variation in learning outcomes, based on social background, among 15-year-old students who participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). And when literacy and numeracy skills among adults are assessed, such as in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), we still see the impact of socio-economic status on skills development. A new report, Educational Opportunities for All, which contributes to the OECD Inclusive Growth initiative, charts the trajectory of educational inequality over a lifetime using OECD datasets on education and learning outcomes.
Children from disadvantaged families, measured by the proxy of parents’ educational attainment, have less chance than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds to benefit from early childhood education and excellent learning opportunities at school. The later stages in a person’s educational career often reinforce the accumulated disadvantage from previous stages.
The chart above shows,for the cohort born between 1985 and 1988, that the impact of social background continues to be strong between the age of 15, when students sit the PISA reading test, and the ages of 25-28, when PIAAC conducts a similar test in literacy. In most cases, the difference in the standardised scores between children with tertiary-educated parents and those without a tertiary-educated parent increases between the two measurements. This is probably because poor literacy proficiency at school translates into different trajectories into further education, into more difficult transitions between school and work, and into work environments that offer fewer opportunities to improve literacy skills either by using those skills or through training.
Is this then a completely pessimistic story? Should we forget about the potential of education to foster a more equal and inclusive society? Not at all! The report shows that children’s educational trajectory is not set in stone. Many children seem to be able to move beyond the destiny to which their background seems to condemn them. But there are large differences among countries in the extent to which these children succeed in school. The report includes a dashboard of 11 indicators of equity in education – a clear sign that policies and practices matter. The right policies and the right kind of incentives can make a huge difference in whether a country is able to provide educational opportunities for all.
Throughout its work on learning, education and skills, the OECD has identified policies that matter with regard to equity. Those identified in this new report are not surprising: invest in accessible, high-quality early childhood education; improve learning opportunities for children at risk and target resources to those schools that need them most; focus on employability skills for adults from disadvantaged backgrounds; and provide opportunities for second-chance and lifelong education.
There is no magic formula that will work for all countries. In some countries, a lack of quality early childhood education creates huge equity issues, while in others, secondary school is the stage at which equality of educational opportunity is jeopardised. In still other countries, it is the transition to work that is the most challenging for disadvantaged young people. As shown in the chart above, Sweden, New Zealand and Norway are relatively successful in guaranteeing equitable learning outcomes in secondary school. But in contrast to the two Nordic countries, New Zealand doesn’t seem able to extend its equitable approach into skills development among young adults, probably because of segregating mechanisms in work allocation and adult learning programmes.
The Flemish Community of Belgium provides a contrasting picture: the secondary school system there shows large disparities in learning outcomes between disadvantaged and advantaged children, but the inequitable outcomes are, to some extent, compensated in early adulthood by more inclusive labour-market and social-protection systems. Countries thus need to search for the specific mix of policies that will work for them.
More equitable and inclusive education and skills policies are not only beneficial for individual people; they can have a huge impact on society. Such policies can guarantee that the routes to upward social mobility remain open to talented people, regardless of their social background. Countries will benefit socially and economically when they stop wasting the talents of those who are penalised simply because of where they came from. At a time when skills are the ticket to brighter futures, developing everyone’s skills is the best strategy towards economic prosperity and social cohesion.