When life means school again

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

“Non scholae, sed vitae discimus” (after Seneca)

September’s here again. For millions of kids living in the northern hemisphere September means the end of summer vacation and the start of a new school year. For some of them it means an encounter with something they haven’t experienced before, for many others it is a return to already familiar routines. But for all of them school is going to be the place where they are going to spend the greater part of their young lives.

Children are starting school at an ever younger age,OECD’s recent Education at a Glance 2013 shows that in 2011 on average over 84% of all four year-old children were enrolled in some form of formal education, which is 5% more than in 2005. In 25 OECD countries at least half of three year-old children participated in early childhood education, and in countries such as Belgium, France, Iceland, Norway and Spain 95% or more found their way to their first educational institution.

At such very young ages the school doesn’t appropriate most of the time that one is awake, but things change at ages five or six when children move on to primary school. In 2011 intended instruction time for primary school pupils averages some 800 hours per year in OECD countries, but it exceeds 900 hours in Australia, Canada, Chile, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal. Slightly more than half of the time at primary school went to instruction in reading, writing, literature, math and science. For most of the time children are grouped in classes which are on average 21.2 pupils large. The trend of school days starting earlier and ending later is reinforced by the trend of smaller classes. In 2000 an average primary school class was  1.5 pupils bigger.

When moving on to lower secondary education (around age 12) the school experience intensifies again. Total intended instruction time now reaches 924 hours per year on average. Instruction now takes place in slightly bigger classes – 23.3 students on average (coming from 24.6 in 2000) – but the ratio of students to teachers drops from 15.4 in primary education to 13.6 in lower secondary education.

At the end of lower secondary education, when in most countries the age of compulsory education is reached, students have accumulated 7 751 hours of instruction in primary and lower secondary school. But many students naturally continue their school careers and move on to upper secondary education, to tertiary education or to some form of continuing education. 2011 enrolment patterns show that a five year-old  pupil can expect to have an average school career of more than 17 years of full-time and part-time education before the age of 40, but in Nordic countries where participation levels are high, an average school career extends over 19 years. In 2011, as a percentage of their age group, students counted for 84% between ages 15 and 19, and 28% between ages 20 and 29. Whereas in 2000 these figures were 76% and 22% respectively.

OECD societies have transformed into heavily scholarised societies, where school becomes important earlier in the life course, where children spend the major part of their time at school, where their educational experience is becoming more intensive,  where more young people stay on in education well beyond the age of compulsory education, and where average educational trajectories take longer than ever in human history. This trend is partly the outcome of public policies to improve the educational opportunities of populations, partly the result of families’ aspirations for better futures for their children. Public policies and private demand go hand-in-hand in producing more educated people. But – as PISA demonstrates – the amount of time appropriated by schools bears no strong relationship to the quality of skills with which young people have to confront the real world.

Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators: The book is now available
For more information: Education at a Glance : www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm
Photo credit: Schoolchildren at home time /@ Shutterstock

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