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How to improve the relationship between education and employment

Maths: an essential subject whose level is falling in a majority of countries

Clément Boulle, Executive director of Polytechnique Insights
On January 12th, 2022 |
4 mins reading time
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Maths: an essential subject whose level is falling in a majority of countries
Eric Charbonnier
Eric Charbonnier
Analyst in the Education and Skills Directorate at the OECD
Key takeaways
  • In France, 87% of 25–34-year-olds with higher education are in employment, compared to only 51% of those with no qualifications – one of the largest gaps of any OECD country.
  • Mathematics grades have been blamed. In 2003, 15% of French students scored very high in maths, while in 2018, only 11% did so.
  • These results are reflected in the latest international study (TIMSS) where France ranked lowest with an average score of 488 points – for a European average of 527 points.
  • According to this study, grade 4 (CM1) teachers in France are the most likely to report feeling uncomfortable when it comes to improving the mathematical understanding of students with difficulties.
  • In Finland, the curriculum now focuses on non-cognitive skills such as creativity and collaboration. Numeracy is still important, but the relationship to mathematics is deconstructed and treated in an interdisciplinary way.

Which education systems are working well in terms of access to employment, and which are not?

The analy­sis dif­fers accord­ing to the degree obtained on leav­ing school. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, bet­ter labour mar­ket oppor­tu­ni­ties are avail­able to high­er edu­ca­tion grad­u­ates in almost all OECD coun­tries. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in France, where 87% of 25–34 year-olds with ter­tiary qual­i­fi­ca­tions are in employ­ment, com­pared with only 51% of those with no qual­i­fi­ca­tions (the OECD aver­ages are 85% and 61% respec­tive­ly). This is one of the largest gaps in the OECD coun­tries. A diplo­ma is the best pro­tec­tion against unem­ploy­ment or inac­tiv­i­ty in France, and those who drop out of school find them­selves in a very pre­car­i­ous posi­tion on the labour market.

As far as high­er edu­ca­tion is con­cerned, south­ern Euro­pean coun­tries (Spain, Italy and Greece) are the worst per­form­ers, with employ­ment rates below 80%. There are two main rea­sons for this: some uni­ver­si­ty degrees are still not high­ly val­ued by com­pa­nies, but above all it is youth unem­ploy­ment rates that remain high in these coun­tries. More sur­pris­ing­ly, South Korea, with an employ­ment rate of 77%, is also at the bot­tom of the league table. On the one hand this is because the ultra-fast expan­sion of high­er edu­ca­tion has led to sig­nif­i­cant dis­crep­an­cies between the needs of com­pa­nies and the dura­tion and require­ments of train­ing. And sec­ond­ly, because Kore­an women often take time out of work after high­er edu­ca­tion to start a family.

Among OECD coun­tries where employ­ment rate of 25–34 year-olds with ter­tiary edu­ca­tion is close to or exceeds 90%, there are coun­tries where ter­tiary voca­tion­al cours­es are high­ly devel­oped and sup­port­ed by com­pa­nies (Ger­many, Lux­em­bourg, the Nether­lands) and some Nordic coun­tries (Nor­way, Ice­land and Swe­den) where employ­ment rates are high, regard­less of the degree obtained.

The weight of mathematics is often associated with student success. But what is the reality?

The labour market’s inter­est in sci­ence grad­u­ates – tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) – remains high. These fields of study still offer bet­ter employ­ment rates and often the best salaries, reflect­ing the demand of an increas­ing­ly inno­va­tion-dri­ven soci­ety. In fig­ures, grad­u­ates in infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies (IT) can expect a 7 point high­er employ­ment rate than grad­u­ates in human­i­ties and arts, or social sci­ences, jour­nal­ism and infor­ma­tion. Among sci­en­tif­ic fields, how­ev­er, employ­ment rates are uneven: grad­u­ates in nat­ur­al sci­ences, math­e­mat­ics and sta­tis­tics are more like­ly to have sim­i­lar employ­ment rates to those of arts grad­u­ates; both of which are low­er than those enjoyed by engi­neers or IT specialists.

This is sur­pris­ing, as math­e­mat­ics still plays a major role in edu­ca­tion sys­tems today, both in terms of train­ing for the pro­fes­sions and selec­tion for high­er edu­ca­tion. Indeed, the lev­el of math­e­mat­ics is a mat­ter of con­cern in many coun­tries. The results of the PISA study of 15-year-old stu­dents show a decline in the lev­el in a major­i­ty of coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly in France, where in 2003, 15% of stu­dents obtained very good per­for­mances (5 and 6 in PISA, 6 being the max­i­mum), where­as in 2018, they were only 11%. Stu­dents in dif­fi­cul­ty (below lev­el 2) account­ed for 17% of the total in 2003 and 21% in 2018. In 15 years, France has thus gone from being one of the coun­tries where 15-year-olds per­form well in math­e­mat­ics to one that is just at the OECD aver­age. The sit­u­a­tion at pri­ma­ry lev­el is even more wor­ry­ing. In the last inter­na­tion­al study (TIMSS), which assessed the lev­el of math­e­mat­ics of pupils in CM1, France was at the bot­tom of the rank­ing with an aver­age score of 488 points, com­pared with the Euro­pean aver­age of 527 points.

Where do these difficulties in mathematics come from?

Coun­tries where invest­ment in teacher train­ing is or has been insuf­fi­cient gen­er­al­ly have a falling stan­dard. The pro­fes­sion of math­e­mat­ics teacher is today cru­el­ly lack­ing in attrac­tive­ness, notably for rea­sons of remu­ner­a­tion, pres­tige, lack of con­tin­u­ous train­ing and career devel­op­ment. In ele­men­tary edu­ca­tion in France, there is also a prob­lem of skills. It is aston­ish­ing that stu­dents who choose lit­er­ary stud­ies because of their poor per­for­mance in maths in high school are the same ones who, after a degree in Arts or Human­i­ties, go on to teach­ing careers in ele­men­tary school. Accord­ing to the TIMSS study, CM1 teach­ers in France are the most like­ly to report feel­ing uncom­fort­able when it comes to improv­ing the math­e­mat­i­cal under­stand­ing of strug­gling stu­dents (39% vs. 21% on aver­age). Yet the 2018 PISA study showed that teach­ers” enthu­si­asm, their abil­i­ty to pass on their knowl­edge with plea­sure and con­fi­dence, are the pri­ma­ry fac­tors in stu­dents” success.

Improv­ing edu­ca­tion­al per­for­mance in France will there­fore require bet­ter train­ing for those involved, but also the con­tin­u­a­tion of the pol­i­cy under­tak­en since 2012 to com­bat edu­ca­tion­al and social inequal­i­ties. A grow­ing num­ber of coun­tries, and in very dif­fer­ent geo­graph­i­cal areas – UK, Fin­land, Aus­tralia, Cana­da, Esto­nia and Japan, to name but a few – are rec­on­cil­ing above-aver­age per­for­mance with greater social equi­ty in per­for­mance. The inequal­i­ties observed in France are there­fore not inevitable. The num­ber one fac­tor is always human invest­ment. In South Korea, for exam­ple, the best teach­ers are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly allo­cat­ed to stu­dents with dif­fi­cul­ties. In France, the oppo­site is true. Young, inex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers are often assigned to dis­ad­van­taged schools and thus con­front­ed with the least pre­pared pupils.

Are there innovative education systems?

In coun­tries such as Fin­land, Esto­nia and Cana­da, school is not about grad­ing or sort­ing stu­dents accord­ing to their results in sub­jects. The main aim is broad­er, to pre­pare young peo­ple to become enlight­ened cit­i­zens in the world of the 21st Cen­tu­ry and to cre­ate voca­tions. The pro­fes­sion­al and busi­ness worlds are very present in the school cur­ric­u­la of these coun­tries, start­ing at sec­ondary school lev­el. This less dis­ci­pli­nary approach, more root­ed in the real-world, is devel­op­ing all over the plan­et. We see this in our OECD project “Edu­ca­tion 2030”. In Fin­land, for exam­ple, the cur­ricu­lum now focus­es on non-cog­ni­tive skills such as cre­ativ­i­ty, curios­i­ty, col­lab­o­ra­tion, self-con­fi­dence and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Numer­a­cy is still impor­tant, but the rela­tion­ship with math­e­mat­ics is unen­cum­bered and treat­ed in an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary man­ner. On the oth­er hand, it is inter­est­ing to note that France and Japan are the two coun­tries, in PISA 2012, where math­e­mat­ics gen­er­at­ed the most anx­i­ety among 15 year old students.

What are the OECD’s recommendations to enable education systems to be more relevant to the labour market?

We rec­om­mend strength­en­ing ini­tial teacher train­ing on the ped­a­gog­i­cal side of the job. The chal­lenges are not the same as they were 30 years ago, edu­ca­tion has become more demo­c­ra­t­ic and teach­ers have to deal with increas­ing­ly het­ero­ge­neous class­es, which requires a change in the ped­a­gogy used. The attrac­tive­ness of the teach­ing pro­fes­sion must also be enhanced, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sci­en­tif­ic field, in order to face com­pe­ti­tion with the pri­vate sec­tor: increase remu­ner­a­tion, allow for career devel­op­ment, devel­op con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion in order to have access to the best research in neu­ro­science and edu­ca­tion­al sci­ences. Final­ly, the best teach­ers must be mobilised for the most dif­fi­cult groups, and the pol­i­cy in favour of the first lev­els of edu­ca­tion and dis­ad­van­taged schools must be extended.