OECD Observer articles on Education 1996 - 2006


The OECD Observer  magazine presents concise, up-to-date and authoritative analysis of crucial world economic, social and environmental issues. Since 1962 it has been keeping policymakers, business people, NGOs, researchers and journalists ahead of the policy debate. It is a catalyst for new discussion and ideas, and a source of key data.

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OECD Observer Article - Higher education: Quality, equity and efficiency
July 2006

Higher education cannot escape major and sometimes difficult change, and OECD governments were determined to lead those changes, rather than be driven by them. This was how Marietta Giannakou, minister of national education and religious affairs of Greece, wrapped up her conclusions as chair of the 2006 Education Ministers’ Meeting.

OECD Observer Article - Universities: A social duty
June 2006

Besides providing training, research, documentation, publishing, and the like, do universities have any particular responsibility towards society? And more to the point, do they have a role to play in the development of education systems? The answer is a resounding “yes”.

OECD Observer Article - Fee education
June 2006

A basic problem with delivering a better higher education system is funding. Since the Second World War higher education, just as secondary and primary schools, has been considered as a public good, and so in most OECD countries the service had to be delivered free of charge to students through taxation. However, tighter public budgets and stiffer global competition for talent have led to a renewed interest in student fees as a possible way of raising more funding. The issue poses several tricky challenges, about access, equity, student finance, debt, and so on. Little wonder the debate has become rather heated in several countries.

OECD Observer Article - Higher education for a changing world
June 2006

Higher education is attracting unprecedented public attention across the OECD. In Germany a competition to create universities of excellence is fuelling debate; in France discussions continue about struggling mainstream universities versus more well-endowed grandes écoles; in the UK there is a debate about education as a public good versus faculties as market-oriented enterprises; and in the US public focus continues on accessibility, competition and costs.

OECD Observer Article - Literacy: Words count
January 2006

New test results show that far too many adults lack the basic tools needed to get on in today’s world, in which the written word is so important. Governments can help, not least by improving access to adult education.


OECD Observer Article - Was it worth it? (Reflections on a teaching career)
September 2005

Graduate teaching courses are becoming more popular again in many countries, though ageing continues to affect the profession, and making the career more attractive for longer remains a challenge. For insight, we asked a retired teacher to explain why, despite the challenges, he stayed in the job.

OECD Observer Article - Brainy classrooms
January 2005

How much do emotions influence learning? Could adults learn to learn? Which teaching methods could help children to reduce dyslexia and dyscalculia? A new interactive teacher forum, set up by the OECD/CERI Learning Sciences and Brain Research project, invites teachers of all levels to join discussion with scientists on the new challenges of teaching and learning in the 21st century.


OECD Observer Article - Computer lesson
July 2004

Are computers really everywhere? Not in some schools. Governments have invested heavily in the past 20 years to make computers and the Internet available in schools in the most advanced OECD countries, but their use by teachers and students is disappointing, a new report says.

OECD Observer Article - Learning about teaching
July 2004

“The never-ending search for competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy has led all public policymakers to focus on education as a key factor in strengthening competitiveness, employment and social cohesion.” This was how Noel Dempsey, Ireland’s minister for education and science, summed up the importance of education at a lively meeting of OECD education ministers in Dublin in March.

OECD Observer Article - “Study now, pay later”
March 2004

University funding is hitting the headlines across Europe. In January the UK government only narrowly won a parliamentary vote to reform funding of higher education, after the prime minister, Tony Blair, put his “authority on the line”. Other European leaders will have been watching closely, as they also plan to revamp their higher education systems.

OECD Observer Article - The global school
March 2004

Educating children is vital for maintaining our standard of living now and in the future. This thought is not new and most of us are well aware of it. What is new is the way we need to work to prepare our children for that future.

OECD Observer Article - A test too far
March 2004

There may be no magic bullet for raising student achievement. Nor is there any getting away from having to invest in teaching and learning. Testing does not provide the full answer. Who would disagree that education and training are among the most significant investments a society can make for its own development? Not many, though it begs the question: why, then, have so many countries allowed public investment in education and training to lag growth in national wealth?

OECD Observer Article - Business: Partners for smarter education
March 2004

When a company makes a decision to invest, one of the most important factors is the quality of the workforce. Every entrepreneur is aware of this; business literature is rich in accounts of capital investments that went wrong because of some mismatch with the local labour pool. Governments, businesses, people: we all lose when that happens. We all gain from a good match. And once in business, education and training of employees remain key to competitiveness. Employees are a company’s most important asset, since they make the mix of resources and circumstances available to a company work best.

OECD Observer Article - Brain waves
March 2004

Where were you when the Twin Towers collapsed? Can you remember receiving your first diploma, your first bicycle or your first kiss? Emotional imprints like these may do more than generate mental images that create pain or delight. Scientists now think they could influence learning.

OECD Observer Article - Bowling together
March 2004

Social science research and international organisations are awash with jargon that many non-specialists find either confusing or unhelpful. Can this be said of the notion of social capital? According to Robert D. Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, and author of the influential book, Bowling Alone, social capital is an idea whose time has come.

OECD Observer Article - Teaching: Restoring its class
March 2004

Teaching is now having to compete more vigorously for talented new recruits than perhaps at any time in the past 20 or so years. During the 1980s and much of the 1990s most OECD countries had relatively stable school enrolments and a young teaching force. But the situation has changed markedly as the workforce has aged. Many countries now experience, or will shortly face, teacher shortages.

OECD Observer Article - Quality education: Is the sky the limit?
March 2004

Higher grades, better students? Or higher grades, lower standards? When more students achieve high exam grades, some claim the credit for supposedly better education systems. Others suggest that requirements must have been lowered. Behind these suspicions, there is usually a belief that somehow there is a natural ceiling to overall performance in education. This would be a mistaken view.

OECD Observer Article - Building the knowledge society
March 2004

These are important times for education in all the member countries of the OECD. The neverending search for competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy has led all public policy-makers to focus on education as a key factor in strengthening competitiveness, employment and social cohesion.


OECD Observer Article - Progress in Education
November 2003

Many headline economic indicators fluctuate day by day. With few exceptions, commentators judge the success or failure of economic policies in quarterly data or annual growth rates. It is harder to become excited about education in the same way, since both policy and indicators measuring performance inch forward at a much slower pace.

OECD Observer Article - Solving the training divide
March 2003

The information society is all very well, but the trouble is ensuring everyone can be trained up for it, especially those who need it most.

OECD Observer Article - The learning business
March 2003

Education is largely a national affair, but it is fast becoming a worldwide service industry too, even for publicly-funded systems. Does trade in education help and can education be traded on the global market without compromising on issues like cultural independence or quality? These questions raise important challenges for governments, educators and students alike that will grow in the years ahead.

OECD Observer Article - Learning about learning
January 2003

In the world of education, students and teachers are on the move. More students attend universities and schools abroad, while teachers too have become more internationally mobile. In some ways, education has many of the characteristics of a large global business. This year’s Education at a Glance, published in October, shows that within the OECD area, Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the US attract seven out of ten foreign students studying abroad. Greek, Japanese and Korean students are the largest sources of foreign students from OECD countries, while students from China and Southeast Asia make up the largest numbers of foreign students from non-OECD countries.


OECD Observer Article - Education: the door of hope
September 2002

Laura Bush, First Lady of the United States, was the keynote speaker at OECD Forum 2002 on 14 May. The theme of Forum 2002 was taking care of the fundamentals: security, equity, education and growth. All four are important, Mrs Bush told a packed audience that included many high-level guests, but all four hinge on one: education.

OECD Observer Article - Education is the key
June 2002

There can be no doubt that poverty, which was the scourge of the 20th century, continues to confront us as the pre-eminent challenge of the new century. High mortality rates claim the lives of millions of women and children. This scourge is manifested in the form of diseases, malnutrition, stunted physical and intellectual development, all of which result in grim consequences. One overriding factor is to blame: poverty.

OECD Observer Article - PISA: The consequences for Germany
June 2002

The findings of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment are alarming. A country with the economic and political significance of Germany belongs at the top of the league and cannot be satisfied with an education system performing at the OECD average level – never mind below it.

OECD Observer Article - The brain drain: Old myths, new realities
May 2002

In 2000 the British government and the Wolfson Foundation, a research charity, launched a five-year research award that raised little attention outside scientific circles. The £20 million scheme aims to attract the return of Britain’s leading expatriate scientists and the migration of top young researchers to the United Kingdom. That same year under greater media coverage, the US Congress announced it was raising the annual cap on the number of temporary work visas granted to highly skilled professionals under its H1B visa programme, from 115 000 to 195 000 per year until 2003.

OECD Observer Article - How good is our global education?
March 2002

The new PISA survey of student knowledge and skills tells us more than we have ever known about which education systems do well. It reveals some interesting surprises, too. The results may point to a need for improvements to education systems worldwide, though this does not mean a standardised curriculum for all countries.

OECD Observer Article - Girls read more than boys
March 2002

Girls have overtaken boys in the literacy stakes when it comes to reading, both in their ability to understand what they read and in their tendency to read for pleasure. More girls than boys spend at least 30 minutes a day reading for pleasure in all OECD countries with the exception of Korea, according to Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000.


OECD Observer Article - Prepare for the global e-campus
November 2001

There has been much talk but precious little action about the coming of “virtual learning”. This might be about to change, although challenges remain.

OECD Observer Article - Rebooting Education
November 2001

Learning your ABC is no longer enough; you can now add a D for digital, as well as an E for electronic. But while information technology has changed society, school has changed hardly at all.

OECD Observer Article - Does team spirit make economic sense?
July 2001

Teamwork is as vital for successful companies as it is for successful football teams. But little attempt has been made to measure its contribution to the economy, or the cost of its absence. Perhaps it is time to pay more attention to this invisible asset.

OECD Observer Article - Building blocks
March 2001

Well-designed schools and campuses may have a role to play in improving educational quality. A new OECD publication, Designs for Learning, looks at 55 establishments in OECD countries selected by an international jury for the way they have adapted to a constantly changing teaching and learning environment. The schools were selected from 90 schools and universities in 21 countries offered to illustrate themes such as schools for a communications society, school buildings and the environment, libraries and educational resources or establishments for higher education.

OECD Observer Article - Surfing lessons
March 2001

Teachers in OECD countries generally do not have sufficient command of information and communications technology (ICT) for educational purposes, particularly when they are using the Internet. That at least was the verdict of 29 students from OECD countries who met with OECD policymakers and experts in Aix-en-Provence, France last December.

OECD Observer Article - How old are new skills?
March 2001

New technologies were for a long time confined to specific occupations and sectors of the economy, but they are now in widespread use. They have become an integral part of daily life and are radically changing trade and the development of communications around the world. Individual levels of education and training are also constantly rising. If the knowledge economy is to expand, every individual – not only those in work – will have to be able to use, handle or produce information. Mastering new skills has become a necessity outside the workplace, to watch interactive television, use the Internet or simply withdraw money at a cash point.

OECD Observer Article - Starting young
March 2001

Lifelong learning has to start at a young age and so it does in many OECD countries, with universal enrolment (more than 90%) at five or six years of age in the majority of OECD members. And in some countries virtually all three to four-year- olds are already enrolled in pre-primary or primary programmes.

OECD Observer Article - Teaching for lifelong learning
March 2001

Today many more young people complete and go beyond secondary education than a few decades ago. Yet the International Adult Literacy Survey 2000 showed that at least a quarter of adults in the 20 countries surveyed - dash; and as many as three-quarters in a few of them - ; lack the minimum literacy skills necessary for modern life and work. These people will have difficulty getting jobs and run the risk of being locked into low-paid work or becoming unemployed as skill demands rise. Providing good initial schooling for all, including those most at risk, is an important part of the solution.

OECD Observer Article - Lifelong learning for all
March 2001

The role of education in contributing to a fairer society has always been double-edged. When successful in widening participation in learning, its contribution is powerful and positive. But too often, it can have the opposite effect of being socially selective, even divisive. Policy strategies need to work with this dual focus - ; reinforcing inclusion and participation while tackling out-dated forms of selection. In 21st century society, this longstanding equity goal for education takes on new urgency.

OECD Observer Article - Bullying at school: tackling the problem
March 2001

Bullying among schoolchildren is certainly a very old phenomenon, though it was not until the early 1970s that it was made the object of systematic research. Though this research originally focused on Scandinavia, by the 1980s bullying among schoolchildren had attracted wider attention in countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

OECD Observer Article - Smaller classes in question
March 2001

Reducing class sizes may not necessarily lead to improved educational performance, France's advisory Haut Conseil de l'Evaluation de l'Ecole has warned, throwing doubt on a 30-year-old pillar of national education policy. The report, delivered in March to the French education minister, Jack Lang, said that smaller class sizes can have an effect in underprivileged areas, but only at primary level and only if the cut is drastic.

OECD Observer Article - Teaching for tomorrow
March 2001

The public education systems woven into the fabric of 20th century welfare states prepared populations to contribute to society and shaped national identity. But the industrial society and the nation state that prompted their existence have had their day, giving way to the new economy and globalisation.

OECD Observer Article - Teacher shortage
March 2001

The public education systems woven into the fabric of 20th century welfare states prepared populations to contribute to society and shaped national identity. But the industrial society and the nation state that prompted their existence have had their day, giving way to the new economy and globalisation.

OECD Observer Article - Teachers need more IT schooling
February 2001

Teachers need more training in new technologies but should not be replaced by computer terminals, students from OECD countries told educational policymakers at a meeting in December. The 28 students, aged 17-20, were worried that many teachers were ignorant not only of the technical aspects of the new technologies, but also about how to use them as an effective learning tool. This can lead to tension between self-directed learning using computers at home and activity within school, the students told the meeting, which was one of the first of its kind, set up to get students' views on new technology in education.

OECD Observer Article - Learning to bridge the digital divide
January 2001

It has become increasingly clear over the past two years that offering the whole world a phone and a computer screen will not in itself help bridge the “digital divide” opening up across the world. The technology is practically worthless unless people are equipped with the know-how, and the willingness, to use it. Those who cannot use it confidently, whether whole countries, groups or individuals, will become increasingly marginalised within the modern world.


OECD Observer Article - Rebels without a role
November 2000

Most young people in OECD countries continue their studies until the end of their teens, but in several countries a disturbingly high proportion - more than 10%  - of 15-19-year-olds are neither in school nor at work. The worst affected are young women in Turkey, where 44% of this age group are out of school and work, but other countries above the 10% mark include the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium and the Czech Republic, the OECD says in its latest Education at a Glance survey.

OECD Observer Article - Brain train
November 2000

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is an adage past its prime, or at least that is what neuroscientists are beginning to argue in brain science. As recently as 1997, it was generally accepted that formative learning takes place only in the first three years of life. But new research helped by technological breakthroughs show this not to be the case. In fact, the evidence shows that the possible loss of neurons after age 40 can be offset by stimulating the brain regularly. In other words, as with muscles, targeted exercise can bring learning benefits at any time in a life. This brain plasticity, or the capacity for lifelong learning, is an exciting finding for cognitive scientists, and is now just starting to influence educational policymaking.

OECD Observer Article - Literacy in a thousand words
November 2000

The US economy may well be the world's largest, with the country riding a wave of unprecedented growth. Yet 40% of its adult population lack the literacy skills required to participate in today's complex knowledge economy. Likewise, other leading economies, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, show similar patterns. Should we be concerned?


OECD Observer Article - Behind the veil of human capital
January 1999

Human capital has become a household word. The concept lay essentially dormant for two centuries after Adam Smith first introduced it, but it was kissed awake in the 1960s by American economists, such as Gary Becker and Jacob Mincer, who then exported it triumphantly around the world. Human capital is a beautifully unifying idea, facilitating the quantitative analyses that economists are so fond of. It is an excellent vehicle for framing policy discussions too, whether on schooling, training and labour market performance. But with the term there is also a tendency to see the labour market rather like one sees financial markets, although for humans rather than financial capital. This seriously distorts perceptions and may lead to damaging political decisions.


OECD Observer Article - Widening the appeal of science in schools
October 1998

Science, mathematics and technology are relatively unpopular parts of the school curriculum. In view of their economic and social importance, improving the attractiveness of these subjects will bring clear rewards, both to individuals and society. Several pioneering approaches suggest how these subjects can retain pupils' interest. (At the end of 1997 the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) completed a large-scale dissemination programme for an international study of innovations in science, mathematics and technology education, the initial findings of which were published in Changing the Subject - Innovations in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, OECD/Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1996.)

OECD Observer Article - Opening pathways from education to work
October 1998

The pathways linking full-time education and work can be long and complicated. The journey is an uncertain one, particularly for those young people who have struggled in education from an early age and expect to have little or no contact with tertiary education. Government policy in OECD countries has often concentrated on providing support to these groups after they have left school. Yet the evidence suggests that improving educational attainment would boost young people's chances and at a lower cost to the public purse.

OECD Observer Article - Redefining tertiary education
October 1998

Tertiary education is a key part of lifelong learning and a cornerstone of today's knowledge society. It is also a broader notion than it used to be, incorporating most forms and levels of education beyond secondary schooling, and including both conventional university and non-university types of institutions and programmes. Tertiary education also means new kinds of institutions, work-based settings, distance learning and other arrangements.

OECD Observer Article - Preventing failure at school
October 1998

Educational ‘failure’ was once seen as an almost inevitable, if regrettable, consequence of schooling. Today, failure has become a target of policy action in its own right. Efforts to prevent failure, to boost overall achievement and to reduce the incidence of dropping out of school are being driven by a range of economic and social concerns.

OECD Observer Article - Counting human capital
June 1998

With economic, social and technological change all calling for constant flexibility and adaptation, governments, organisations, enterprises and individuals alike are increasingly aware of the importance of lifelong learning; similarly, they share a common interest in renewing and increasing the skills base of the population. Tight fiscal constraints in almost all OECD countries compound the importance of efficient investment in education and training, and thus in human capital.


OECD Observer Article - Lifelong learning and employability
December 1997

Investment in and financing of learning ‘Lifelong employability' - the capacity to be productive and to hold rewarding jobs over one's working life - is no longer guaranteed by the education and training received in childhood and youth. The continuous structural changes affecting all OECD economies have increased the importance of up-to-date skills and competences. Responding to this requirement calls for the development of effective strategies for lifelong learning.

OECD Observer Article - Education and social exclusion
October 1997

The central importance of education, learning and the acquisition of knowledge and skills can never have been more widely recognised. It is now common to talk of OECD countries as `knowledge economies'. With rapid change, and hence the continual requirement for new knowledge, few people now adhere to the old assumptions that an initial schooling or apprenticeship is an adequate preparation for working life. Life-long learning has come to be widely acknowledged as essential, not only in education, but in a wide armoury of economic and social policies; it forms a central plank, for instance, of the OECD Jobs Strategy.

OECD Observer Article - From theory to practice in education
October 1997

Every year, some 10,000 educational researchers descend on one of America's larger cities for the annual jamboree of the American Educational Research Association. Five days and several thousand learned papers later, they return to their universities to reflect on the latest findings, to pursue their own specialised strand of research and to prepare students of education to go out and teach - in more or less the same way as they did the year before. Why the inertia?


OECD Observer Article - Co-ordinating services for children at risk
October 1996

Many schools in OECD countries face difficulties in serving children - across the whole age-range - who have problems adjusting to school life. These pupils run an increased risk of failing to complete their schooling and obtain a leaving certificate. That has serious implications for their entry to the labour market, exposing them to the risk of social exclusion. And the effects are felt more widely. Educational institutions may have difficulty maintaining standards and functioning efficiently. And the public finances can suffer when these young adults claim benefit payments instead of generating tax revenue.

OECD Observer Article - Educational and career guidance: What works
October 1996

Good career guidance could have a central role to play in active labour-market policies, which in many OECD countries have to become more effective, as well as enabling more individuals to lead satisfying and productive lives. But its importance goes largely unrecognised by national policy-makers. The resources currently invested are often not being used as efficiently as they might be, because of a lack of focus on objectives, and systems which are either inflexible and bureaucratic or full of gaps and inconsistencies.

OECD Observer Article - The internationalisation of higher education 
October 1996

The international setting for universities and other institutions of higher education is changing rapidly,both economically and socially. In most OECD countries new developments, not least the globalisation of the economy, have led to more international practices and approaches to the teaching of under-graduates. But the responses from universities and other institutions have not been systematic, and the underlying implications for reform have not been assessed coherently. The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation has conducted a study on the impact of international settings on higher-education programmes and structures.


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