A well-educated population has become a defining characteristic of a modern society. Education is seen as a mechanism for instilling civic values, as well as a means for developing the productive and social capacity of the individual. Early childhood programmes prepare young children socially and academically for entry into primary education; primary and secondary education provide a foundation of basic skills that prepare young people to become productive members of society; and tertiary education provides a range of opportunities for individuals to gain advanced knowledge and skills, either immediately after initial schooling or later in life. In addition, many employers encourage and assist workers in upgrading or reorienting their skills in order to meet the demands of changing technologies.
Information on the expected duration of schooling and on enrolment rates at various levels of education provides a picture of the structure of different education systems, as well as of access to educational opportunities in those systems. Trends in enrolments in the various levels of education and types of educational institutions are also indicators of how the supply and demand of educational resources are balanced in different countries.
Virtually all young people in OECD countries have access to basic education for at least 11 years. But patterns of participation in and progression through education over the life cycle vary widely. As shown in Indicator C1, both the timing and the rate of participation in the pre-school years and after the end of compulsory education differ considerably between countries. Some countries have extended participation in education, for example, by making pre-school education almost universal by the age of three, by retaining the majority of young people in education until the end of their teens, or by maintaining 10 to 20 per cent participation among all age groups up to the late 20s. Education and training beyond formal schooling are also an important component of lifelong learning, embracing individual and social development in a wide variety of institutional settings. Indicator C1 not only provides an overall picture of the formal education system, but also provides an overview of participation in continuing education and training outside the formal education system.
A range of factors, including an increased risk of unemployment and other forms of exclusion of young people with insufficient education, have strengthened the incentive for young people to stay enrolled beyond the end of compulsory education and to graduate from upper secondary education. Indicator C2 shows that upper secondary graduation is not only becoming more and more the norm, but also that the majority of students graduate from upper secondary programmes that are designed to provide access to further tertiary education. Indicator C2 also presents graduation rates from post-secondary programmes that are at the same content level as upper secondary programmes, one alternative pathway to typically longer tertiary education.
Beyond the secondary level, a number of options exist for further education. One avenue is relatively short, vocationally-oriented programmes at the tertiary level. Another is theoretically-based programmes, which are designed to provide sufficient qualifications for entry to advanced research programmes and professions with high skill requirements. These are mainly but not exclusively taught at universities. Graduation from tertiary education programmes is generally associated with better access to employment (Indicator E1) and higher earnings (Indicator E5).
A set of two indicators presents some of the features of tertiary education today. Indicator C3 presents the proportion of today's young people who enter tertiary education, and looks at the number of years spent in different forms of tertiary education over the life cycle. It shows that the expected years of study is rising rapidly. Indicator C4 takes this further and shows that of those entering university, there is a wide variation between countries in the proportion leaving with a first qualification. It also shows some widely differing characteristics of tertiary provision.
Students with disabilities, learning difficulties and those from disadvantaged groups often receive additional support in school to enable them to make satisfactory progress. Some continue to be educated in special schools, but increasingly they are included in mainstream education. The orientation of educational policies towards lifelong learning and equity has particular significance for these students since they face the greatest risk of exclusion, not only in schools but also in the labour market and in life generally. Monitoring the educational provision that is made for these students is of great importance, especially given the substantial extra resources involved. Indicator C5 compares the proportion of students that countries consider to have special educational needs. It also presents data on the extent of provision, its location and the distribution of students with special educational needs by gender.
There is ample evidence that more secondary and tertiary education for young people improves their individual economic and social opportunities. There is also growing evidence, albeit less direct, of a payoff for whole societies from increasing the educational attainment of the population. But as rapidly changing technology and globalisation transform the pattern of demand for skilled labour throughout the world, raising the proportion of young people who participate in upper secondary or higher education can only be part of the solution, for a number of reasons: First, an inflow of better-educated young people will only gradually change the overall educational level of the existing workforce. Second, educational attainment is only one component of human capital accumulation. Knowledge and skills continue to be acquired throughout people's lives, through experiences in families, communities and business, as well as within formal educational settings. There is a growing demand in the workplace and elsewhere for individuals who are good at using and interpreting knowledge flexibly, and who can work with others effectively. These abilities can be acquired partly through education, but must also be developed in the settings where they will be used. Strategies for developing lifelong learning opportunities must therefore look beyond mainstream educational institutions, to ensure optimal investment in human capital. Indicator C6 brings together evidence from the International Adult Literacy Survey (1994 to 1998) and national household surveys on adult education and training, both of which provide some understanding of participation in job-related education and training among the employed.