Tackling inequity

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education

What struck me most about the international roundtable on early childhood education and care that I attended late last month in Oslo was the simple fact that this topic attracted such intense interest. It probably wouldn’t have happened a decade ago. The fact that it’s happening now, even as most of the countries represented at the meeting are in the midst of an economic crisis, is an encouraging sign. It shows that more governments understand that equity of opportunity has to begin in the first years of life, in the earliest years of a child’s education, in order to give everyone a fair chance to succeed later on.

As recent headlines repeatedly tell us, and as is evident just looking around us, equity has become something of an endangered ideal. And this is, unfortunately, just as true in education as in many other areas of life. OECD research finds that one in five students does not complete secondary school; yet our research also shows that those 15-year-olds, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, who had attended pre-primary education perform better on PISA than those who did not. In other words, give all children a good start and you give them the tools and the confidence to meet the challenges that arise later on in their lives.

It is easy to argue, particularly when governments are forced to make tough economic choices, that this kind of inclusiveness in education is too expensive to introduce and maintain, that the quality of the education provided would, inevitably, suffer. But some countries–Poland is one notable example–have already proven that inclusiveness and quality in education are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I would argue that inclusiveness improves quality for all concerned, as it is to the advantage of society as a whole when people from different backgrounds learn with and from each other.

That is precisely the premise of Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, which is published today. In essence, countries in the industrialised world cannot afford not to invest in quality early childhood, primary and secondary education for all: the cost to society later on–in high rates of unemployment, in poor health, in increasing criminal activity–would be far greater.

Many governments of OECD countries are now talking of structural reform to tackle complex problems cost-effectively; inequity–in education and in general–should be at the top of the agenda. In fact, education is no longer, if it ever was, an isolated issue. Education reform requires an all-government approach, involving policies related to such disparate domains as housing and taxation. It also requires commitment, both financial and philosophical. All governments say they want to tackle the problem of growing inequity that, left unchecked, could threaten the stability of our societies. Investing in quality education for all is one of the best ways of doing so.

More information about OECD work on equity in education: www.oecd.org/edu/equity
Equity and Quality in Education – Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Photo credit: © Brian Kennedy/Flickr/Getty Images

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