Education Policy Committee at Ministerial Level: Remarks by OECD Secretary-General


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

OECD Conference Centre, 4 November 2010

Good morning Ministers, and welcome to this meeting of Ministers of Education.

There are many of you taking part today. In fact you number 40 in all, including 2 international organisations, for which I warmly thank you.

I am grateful to the Austrian Minister of Education, Ms. Claudia Schmied, who has kindly agreed to chair this meeting, as well as the Education Ministers of Mexico and New Zealand for acting as Vice-Chairs. My thanks, too, to Norway for hosting this luncheon.

When you met last time it was to discuss higher education. That was in Athens in 2006 and you examined the challenges facing universities.

The world has changed dramatically since. Due to the effects of the economic and financial crisis, we have to adapt to new circumstances. We must confront the consequences of the crisis on education and how education can help supporting a job rich recovery.

In a post crisis scenario, the link between education and employment becomes strategic; especially when you have record levels of unemployment and nearly 30% of the unemployed with more than one year out of work. I know someone raised this point during this morning Forum. It is crucial!

Let me start with the short-term.

The survey of countries that the OECD launched in preparation for this meeting shows an interesting picture.


Some countries have been able to maintain their levels of spending on education. Others had to make difficult decisions and approved education budgets that are less than might have been hoped for. But we also see that such cuts have generally focused areas where they do little harm to substance.

The efforts done to give priority to the quality of education are to be applauded. We look forward to hearing your experiences. Sharing the list of “do’s” and “don’t’s” on those budgetary decisions will be important for us all.

Nevertheless, the issue goes beyond adjusting education spending in the short-run.

Growing demands with regard to health, housing, pensions and security, will put pressure on education spending in the future. Consequently, we need to prove that our investments in education are delivering the highest possible returns, in terms of income and job opportunities for individuals. 

Ultimately, these gains are key to enhancing the long term economic prospects of our countries, as shown by recent OECD work. It will be particularly interesting to hear the views of Ministers from non-member countries on this issue.

What is the evidence, so far?

One obvious conclusion is that we cannot afford to be complacent. While expenditure on education increased by 40% between 2000 and 2006, our PISA assessment is implacable: the overall performance of countries has remained unchanged. Thus, we need to significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of educational systems. The OECD’s role is to help you achieve that.

Governments need to become more effective in matching students’ and workers’ skills to the new needs of markets and having effective teachers that can do the job. As you mentioned during this morning Forum, we need to prepare learners with “skills for a rapidly changing reality”.

There are many challenges urging us to step up the skill pace. These include ageing populations, the advent of new technologies and the growing strength of the knowledge economy.

The importance of focusing on skill challenges is heightened by the fierce global economic competition that has ensued from the crisis. The countries that invest in human capital will certainly come out strengthened and will become the champions of tomorrow.

What skills do young people need today in order to take their proper place in the economy and society of the 21st Century? How do we deal with realities like, for instance, that according to our PISA data, on average, more than 20% of the 15 year olds have major difficulties in reading?

Secondly, how can we make sure that our educational and training systems ensure quality and efficiency in learning itself, while delivering equity in access to learning opportunities? We should also remember, for instance, that in a majority of countries the social background of students still has a large influence on learning outcomes.

And lastly, how best to increase the performance of teachers ensuring that they equip the young generations with the right skills? In this regard, OECD work shows that in upper secondary education the average number of teaching hours is 661. Not too bad a score, some may believe. Yet, we also observe huge variations across countries, ranging from 364 in Denmark to 1051 in the Unites States.

These questions that you will be discussing this afternoon will be central to the future activities of the OECD, including those relating to the OECD’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

The findings of the fourth PISA survey, in which 65 countries, representing nearly 90% of the world GDP participated, will be released in a month’s time and will shed further light on the skills of our young people. It is an essential exercise.

In addition, the OECD is honing its own skills by launching a survey that will look at the skills of adults. This project is known as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). We have been working on it for over 5 years, and the first results will be published in 2013. Early “field trial” results will already be available next year.

But we would also like to have a wide-ranging overview of skills demand and supply. We shall thus soon launch a Skills Strategy, which will allow us to produce a major report on the issue within three years.

For each country, we shall provide you with essential information on the skills their citizens possess. We will produce detailed maps of existing gaps. In fact, the OECD is the best placed to help close the loop between education, training, skills and employment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Education is the undeniable engine of economic progress. It is the main tool to empower our citizens to find decent jobs. It is also essential for innovation, as shown by our Innovation Strategy, which was presented to Ministers of Economy and Finance last June.

Yet, we need to raise the profile and ambition of our goals. Above all, we need to focus on education outcomes, to lay the ground work for a better performance of our education systems. And for this it is crucial that we spread best practices throughout our education systems.

Your responsibility therefore is enormous, but so is the potential of your contribution to the economic future of your countries and the well-being of your societies.

Next month we shall begin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the OECD. Our principal message is that we are helping countries develop “better policies for better lives”.

Our work on education is living proof that the OECD is working vigorously towards this objective and this meeting will move us further forward in this direction.

I welcome you here to our headquarters. I trust your exchanges will be fruitful and mutually beneficial, in building a stronger, cleaner, fairer world.

Thank you


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