9th Forum on Educational Innovation – Iruaritz Lezama Foundation


Remarks by Ángel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

14 June 2018 - Madrid, Spain

(As prepared for delivery)




Ambassador, Father Lezama, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful for the invitation to attend this meeting on one of the most important issues facing our societies: innovation in our education systems.


The slow progress of educational innovation

Let me start with a question: why do we need educational innovation? I am going to use evidence to try and answer that. In 2015, nearly one in two students, almost 12 million 15-year-olds in 70 high- and middle-income countries, were unable to meet the basic reading, mathematics and science objectives of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).


That is hard to say and hard to accept. Over the last decade, there has been virtually no improvement in student learning outcomes in the Western world, despite the fact that spending on education has increased by nearly 20% during this period. Unfortunately, in many countries, the quality of the education that students will receive can be predicted by their zip code.


This is a truly worrying situation, because we know that without quality education and a proper mix of skills, abilities and expertise, people are marginalised; countries do not fully benefit from technological advances, nor do they translate into social progress. Therefore, all countries, all governments, must constantly innovate in their education systems, methods and programmes in order to stay ahead in a rapidly changing digital world.


Of course, sometimes it is an uphill struggle, and some people ask themselves: Can education systems really be reformed and innovated? Many of them are so large, so complex, so controlled by the powers that be. Is it possible to innovate in education? We at the OECD have evidence that it is possible. I’ll let you into a secret: learning outcomes among the 10% of the most disadvantaged Vietnamese and Estonian students are better than those of the 10% of the richest families in most of Latin America, and are already on a par with the average students in Europe and the United States. They came from behind. They innovated. They got better.


In addition, in most countries we can find excellent schools, such as Santa María la Blanca here in Madrid. The fact that there are schools that stand out within the same education demonstrates the importance of good policies in education outcomes.


So of course it can be achieved! What is more, it must be done, and we must intensify our efforts.


There is much room for improvement

Last year, we published the first Measuring Innovation in Education report, and it paints a pretty bleak picture. For example, most education systems aim to develop children's critical thinking, creativity and communication skills. This requires teachers to give children enough space to express their ideas. So in 2006 we asked 15 year olds in PISA if they had the opportunity to express themselves in some of their classes. And it turned out that in OECD countries, only one in five students said “yes”. In 2015 we asked the same question, and again only one in five students answered "yes" (in the case of Spain, only one in ten). This is a concern.


The main dilemma for teachers is that standard cognitive skills, which are the kind of thing that is easy to teach and evaluate, are also the easiest skills to digitise, automate and outsource.


The latest OECD estimates show that in Spain, almost 22% of jobs are at high risk of automation in the next 15-20 years. In addition, another 30% of jobs are at risk of significant changes in the way they are performed and the skills they require. This future is closer than we think, as many of us are currently seeing how workers in jobs at high risk of automation are becoming increasingly less sought after in the labour markets.


Cutting-edge knowledge will always be essential. However, the success of education is no longer based on reproducing content, but on extrapolating and applying it creatively. That requires developing other skills, other talents, other conjuring tricks. And it requires putting them into practice as soon as possible. Empirical evidence shows that early childhood education is an effective tool for mitigating differences stemming from children's social backgrounds.


Furthermore, in order for these skills to become opportunities for all, parents, teachers, legislators and opinion leaders must break down gender stereotypes, especially those linked to the area of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Even when girls graduate in this field, they are less likely than boys to work in related jobs. Among graduates with science degrees from a subset of OECD countries, only 43% of women work professionally in physics, mathematics and engineering, compared to 71% of men. As a result, only 13.7% of inventors who file patents in the OECD are women.


The OECD is ready to support innovation in education systems

The OECD promotes reflection on the kinds of skills, attitudes and values needed to succeed in the tomorrow’s world through its Future of Education and Skills 2030 and Innovative Learning Environments projects, the Study on Social and Emotional Skills and the Getting Skills Right programme.


The challenge is that the development of these cognitive, social and emotional skills requires a different approach to learning and teaching. Teachers should fully assume their role as ethical educators, collaborative learners, innovative designers, transformational leaders and community builders.


To make this a reality, the OECD helps Member countries design better policies through the Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning project, which examines how to improve the quality of teachers and teaching so as to optimise student learning. We also publish the Teaching and Learning International Survey, which collects information from teachers and school administrators on working conditions and the learning environment. The most successful education systems attract and retain the best teachers, provide adequate compensation, foster continual professional development, and provide constant feedback.


To transform education on a large scale requires not only a radical and alternative vision of what is possible, but also effective strategies and institutions. Today's schools emerged at the time of the industrial revolution when standardised teaching was adequate and efficient, and it was enough to train teachers only once in their professional lives. In a world of rapid change like ours, this structure makes change too slow. The world is moving too fast, we have to move faster!


Ambassador, Father Lezama, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the global economy, the performance of education systems has become the key to success, particularly against the backdrop of the technological changes affecting our economies. Educational innovation must be a great ally of social inclusion, of the integral development of individuals, of manifestations of solidarity and empathy towards others.


Education is permanent adaptation, constant change, continuous innovation! As the great educator and pedagogue Paulo Freire said, “We all know something, we are all ignorant of something, for this reason we are always learning.” The OECD is ready to support a collective effort by all those involved in education to make this happen: students, parents, teachers, school leaders and legislators, and we are ready to support the new Spanish government in this important endeavour. Thank you.




See also:

OECD work on Education

OECD work with Spain


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