Who are the winners and losers of the expansion of education over the past 50 years?

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

Modern education systems, which are open to the middle classes and the poor, not just the elites, were established during the first industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The growing demand for elementary literacy and technical skills during that period prompted an expansion of school systems and the adoption of the first pieces of legislation on compulsory education. Popular education continued to grow during the first half of the 20th century, corresponding to the so-called “second industrial revolution”, which was ignited by advances in science and technology. In the early 20th century, attainment of primary education became nearly universal, and the system of secondary education began to grow. 

But the great surge in the expansion of education in developed nations, specifically in secondary education, occurred in the wake of World War II, and more specifically from the 1960s and 1970s onwards. At that time, many countries started to see a massive increase in the demand for education, which they had to meet with new infrastructure, a vast effort to recruit and train more teachers, and a corresponding jump in public funding. Unprecedented economic growth and the modernisation of societies, together with an emerging welfare-state consensus that included public education as one of its core components, created the demand for skills and aspirations for upward mobility among large sections of the population – and the political and economic resources to fuel that expansion.

The most recent Education Indicators in Focus brief provides a fascinating statistical account of the growth of secondary education attainment in OECD countries since 1965, spanning half a century to 2015. The chart above highlights the differences in take-off and speed of growth of educational attainment across countries. It ranks countries by the date at which 80% of the 25-34 year-olds in that country attained upper secondary education.

The chart clearly shows that the dominant view of the expansion of education, which is based on data from only a few countries, does not do justice to the variety of developmental trajectories across countries. For example, the United States had developed its system of public education steadily since the late 19th century and had already achieved the 80% benchmark attainment rate by 1969. This remarkable achievement provided one of the foundations for the economic, social and political powerhouse that the United States became in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Germany was also an early achiever in educational development. The Prussian state adopted legislation on compulsory education early in the 19th century. Strong economic development from the late 19th century onwards and welfare-state approaches to public education after Bismarck propelled the development of public education across the country, albeit in a socially segregated system with sharp divisions between the elite education offered in the Gymnasia and the technical-vocational education targeting the working class. 

It is no coincidence that the two most educationally developed nations at the time fought on opposite sides of World War II. But it is also interesting to note that both countries did not make a lot of further progress in the half century after 1965, and that they have been surpassed by a wide range of countries since then. Other countries, including Denmark, Norway and Sweden, have also not been able to build on their impressive position in 1965 and have even seen a decline in educational attainment rates among the younger generation in recent years.

In 1965, fewer than one in two 25-34 year-olds in most OECD countries had attained upper secondary education. The interesting thing to compare is the timing and speed of the expansion of education over the subsequent 50 years. The most impressive – and well-known – story is of course that of Korea. With an attainment rate of just over 20% in 1965 it succeeded in expanding education at an unprecedented speed, especially from 1985 onwards. No other country has been able to match that achievement. Despite doubts about the sustainability of the expansion, especially since it has moved to the tertiary level, and the risks of “education inflation”, it remains an impressive historical accomplishment, which undoubtedly fuelled the economic success of the country.

The chart shows that there are other examples of rapid educational development over the past 50 years, such as occurred in Belgium, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland and Poland. When these countries were transforming themselves from agricultural to largely industrial economies, they managed to grow their secondary attainment rate from below 40% in 1965 to the 80% benchmark between 1990 and 2005. Another group of countries, which includes Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, is also making enormous progress, but has yet to reach the benchmark in attainment.

Trajectories of education expansion vary enormously among countries. The differences observed in 1965 were already remarkable, mirroring the diversity of levels of economic development and state formation. Religious divisions within Europe are still apparent in the 1965 data, with countries with a “Protestant work ethic” in the lead and predominantly Catholic countries much further behind. But by 2015, most of these countries have converged in their upper secondary attainment levels, and the ranking in educational attainment looks now completely different from the one in 1965.

It is difficult to disentangle the interplay between social developments and developments in education to determine causality with any certainty; but it is clear that the expansion of education helped countries grow economically, modernise and develop their social and political systems. Of course, rising educational attainment also has a downside: the increased marginalisation and exclusion of those without a good education. Recent social and political events have exposed the fractures in societies along the educational attainment fault line. While expansion is now moving into the tertiary level of education, countries might also have to turn their focus from fuelling continuous growth to catering more to those who have been left behind during this remarkable historical transformation.


Education Indicators in Focus No. 48: Educational attainment: A snapshot of 50 years of trends in expanding education
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
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Chart source: OECD (2016), “Educational attainment and labour-force status”, Education at a Glance (database). See Annex 3 for notes.

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