Trust is all we need…

by Lucie Cerna
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Trust is the glue that holds societies together. It is essential for most social and economic relations. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, OECD countries have been under pressure to restore trust in their institutions, especially in their governments. In a 2013 Gallup Poll, the average trust in government across OECD countries was only 42%. But there is also some good news. Citizens retain a high level of trust in their education systems (67%), health care (69%) and local police (72%) though trust levels vary across countries. The OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges  and the forthcoming Trust Strategy both seek to guide member states on how to rebuild trust in their institutions in a post-crisis world.

But what is trust? It is not easily defined due to its multifaceted character. Trust can be an expectation, an interaction, a belief, an emotion or a social coordination mechanism. Several forms of trust exist, ranging from institutional trust (trust in education systems), organisational trust (between parents and school as an organisation) to interpersonal trust (between student and teacher). While the OECD has mostly focused on institutional trust, it is important to also consider interpersonal trust, both in formal and non-formal relations.

Interpersonal trust can enable the development of social capital and is a measure of social cohesion. In high-trust societies, individuals are comfortable sharing ideas and exchanging information with family, friends and fellow citizens. This can facilitate reaching a consensus among stakeholders and enable more efficient interactions between individuals. In school settings, interpersonal trust is necessary for major structural changes because it allows teachers and school leaders to engage constructively in decision-making.

So why is trust in education systems much higher than in governments? Schooling is integral to everyday life. Most respondents may relate to it whether taking their children to the local school, interacting with teachers at parent-teacher conferences or remembering their own school experience. This is likely to create much stronger connections than with politicians at the national level.

Trust is an essential element of governance and functioning systems and as such it has been interwoven in discussions on the Governing Complex Education Systems project at OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. A recently released EDU Working Paper analyses the centrality of trust for policymaking and current governance issues. Trust enables stakeholders to take risks, facilitates interactions and cooperation, and reduces the need for control and monitoring. Trust offers flexibility to stakeholders to propose and implement innovative reforms. It allows engaging parents, students and communities as active partners. Other factors such as high levels of professionalism and attractiveness of teaching depend on it. For instance, teachers in Finland are so greatly trusted that there is no need for school inspections to take place. Teachers are also encouraged to take risks to implement innovative practices in their classrooms. The system works by trusting in a high level of professionalism and professional ethics of teachers and school leaders.

How can conducive conditions for building trust be created? An example from the United States provides some answers. Principals who favoured teacher interaction and collaboration complained about insufficient time to actually interact and build collegial trust. These principals then changed structures in order to increase interaction time: for example, by rethinking the daily schedule at school, organising more meetings and introducing a teacher room. Such changes can have a positive effect on building trust.

But what can be done when trust breaks down? There is some empirical evidence that trust can be rebuilt through, for example, greater communication, transparency and cooperation between stakeholders. Yet more transparency can only lead to more trust if it is combined with collaboration. Overall, building trust is a lengthy and difficult process. Most forms of trust require familiarity and mutual understanding, and thus depend on time and context. The social context can allow individuals to trust others more easily and to be rewarded for reciprocity in social relations. How can such an enabling context be created? Schools can play an important role in developing cognitive skills which facilitate trust development. Current work at the OECD is exploring such mechanisms, so watch this space!


Centre for Education Research and Innovation (CERI) 
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills 
OECD Public Governance – Trust in Government
Related blogs:
Balancing trust and accountability 
How can education systems embrace innovation? 
Photo credit: Group throwing girl in the air / @Shutterstock

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