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.