Education reform: a priority for a better future


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the launch of the OECD Report on the Education Policy of Greece


Athens, 2nd August 2011
(As prepared for delivery)
Minister Diamantopoulou, ladies and gentlemen,
Good afternoon. It is great pleasure to be in Athens to launch the OECD report on Greece’s education policy. This report is meant to share policy advice with Greece in an area that is essential for its future. I would like to thank the Minister for her confidence, her leadership and for hosting us this afternoon. 

Education is in fact the key to Greece’s future prosperity. As difficult as the current economic crisis is, it is important not to lose focus on the importance of education and to start addressing some of the problems that have long plagued the nation’s education system.

With the recent agreement with EU leaders, Greece has gained some time to implement its reform program. A lot has been done already. Reforms carried out over the past year are impressive and need to be properly appreciated by the public at home and abroad. And the results are starting to show up.  Greece can succeed and exit from this crisis stronger. But there is a long and hard road ahead. And success will depend on continued reforms and thorough implementation.

This is true, crucially, about education reforms. Here the government has set forth an ambitious agenda for change, in line with the best practices across OECD countries. I would like to commend the Government for such bold but necessary set of reforms despite the pushback from entrenched interests. I know how difficult it is to move forward with reforms which are indispensible to modernise a country and to improve the lives of people. My own country, Mexico, is a good example of such difficulties.

The OECD is here to help Greece. We are the leading international institution in the different stages and challenges of education policy: from early child care, with our famous “Starting Strong” report, to our flagship Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); our reviews of Vocational Education and Training systems (VET); our Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS); our Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO); our Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI); our latest Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), etc. We are proud to put this wealth of expertise at Greece’s disposal and to continue working with and for Greece in the construction of a better education system. 

Our report outlines short-, medium- and long-term actions that Greece can take to establish solid foundations for the future development of its education system. Several of these are already being pursued as part of the Government’s reform agenda. But more has to be done.

One of the most urgent actions is the need to dismantle the highly centralised controls that undermine efforts to modernise the education system. This excessive centralisation will itself impinge on the chances of success of other education reforms.

Thus, we recommend establishing, within the Education Ministry, a unit to guide and oversee step-by-step implementation of policies. The central structures currently devoted to input controls could be downsized, in line with the modern public management systems in place in many OECD countries. The creation of a comprehensive data base would also be instrumental to support planning, to monitor quality improvement, and to improve management throughout the education system. This is an indispensible tool which has already been implemented with success in many places, such as the Flemish Community of Belgium, and which we can help adopt in Greece.

Besides the need to decentralise functions, our report addresses other challenges faced by both the school sector and the tertiary education sector.

At the school level, the report addresses four main challenges and identifies short-term priority actions.
The first challenge is to improve governance and management. School directors need to be given enough legitimacy and authority to actually lead their schools. They also need to focus their professional development on building skills in personnel management. Meanwhile, disadvantaged schools need greater resources to recruit effective teachers. Indeed, we have recently studied the situation in 15 countries and came to the conclusion that school autonomy, accountability and strong school leadership are indispensible if countries are to raise learning outcomes.

We also suggest that Greece should make the professional development of school directors and of directors of newly-formed school clusters a central priority, and to complement the current centrally-led approach to professional development with more local, decentralised initiatives based on school needs.

The second challenge concerns the rationalisation of the school network, which is currently, and rightly, a central priority for the Ministry of Education. We believe that this rationalisation should continue. Moreover, the task of school mapping and rationalisation should be assigned to each of the 13 regional directors as an on-going core planning responsibility. In this way, a differentiated region-by-region strategy can be developed and pursued. This will allow a better adaption to different geographic and demographic conditions.

The third challenge is about the development and use of human resources. Here the experiences of other successful countries are particularly useful. The net teaching time in Greece in lower secondary education was 429 hours in 2008, compared to the OECD average of 599, and the EU19 average of 566. This gap persists even after adjusting to account for a shorter school year as required by Greece’s climate. This shows that there is clearly a need for Greece to increase teachers’ workloads. 

We also suggest focusing on increasing the workload of the most experienced teachers. At 16 hours per week in secondary education, it is substantially lower than the 21 hours of start-of-career teachers. Greece is one of the very few countries in Europe where teaching hours for start-of-career and end-of-career teachers are not similar.

Last but not least, evaluation and assessment remain a critical challenge. The report argues for an acceleration of current initiatives on school self-evaluation. The goal would be to design and implement a comprehensive system based on results and outcomes, rather than on inputs and procedures. We believe this will bring quick positive results, as demonstrated by the experience of several OECD countries. We also see the need for Greece to urgently initiate, design and develop a comprehensive system to assess learning outcomes. This system would have to be aligned with curriculum objectives and can be used at multiple levels of the system, such as individual students, classrooms, schools regions and the education system as a whole.

At the tertiary education level, the OECD report addresses three main challenges. The first one is the lack of capacity to steer the system and to govern and manage institutions. We recommend to urgently enact the proposed higher-education framework law to establish a new foundation for improved efficiency and performance. We also recommend establishing an independent steering entity, the Hellenic Higher Education Authority, which would provide technical assistance in implementing the new framework law. This type of reform has been implemented with success in Sweden and Ireland, for example.

The second challenge regards the lack of differentiation and dispersion of resources over many small institutions and departments. It is important, in our view, to redefine the mission of tertiary education institutions to strengthen alignment with the Lifelong Learning Strategy, and to establish a more clearly differentiated binary system, including a university sector and a non-university sector.

Once again, this has been done in Finland, the Netherlands and Ireland. We also see the need to consolidate or merge small departments with low enrolments and graduation rates.

The last challenge relates to the high entrance rates but comparatively low completion rates. There is a need to monitor admissions to the higher education system. In 2007, Greece had the second highest tertiary education enrolment amongst 14 European countries analysed, surpassed only by Finland. There is also a need to more clearly differentiate admissions requirements between the universities and the other tertiary education institutions.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude with two remarks.
First, you will certainly agree that real change can only be achieved through persistent, consistent implementation, year after year, together with careful attention to capacity building for improvement. We all know how difficult it is to introduce bold reforms which, while aiming to enhance the public good, fly in the face of vested interests. I would like again to acknowledge the courageous efforts of the Greek Government to reform its educational system.

Second, in view of the current economic and social situation, there is a need to accelerate the timeline for implementing the recently announced administrative reforms. Education is indeed key for the future of Greece. It is time to equip this country with a modern and efficient education system, and this is what this report supports by suggesting reforms tested by a number of other OECD countries.

Greece needs to look beyond its short-term difficulties and start to prepare for a brighter future. It is at the crossroads, but can succeed, provided that it undertakes and implements relentlessly the right reforms. The reform of education is crucial in this endeavour. The OECD, with its expertise and leadership in this area, is at your disposal, Madam Minister, to support your reforms.