Girl in school

Tracking skills for the future

The concept of 'skills for the future' is a dynamic concept, which evolves with the shifting needs of the economy and society. While it often includes a focus on digital and green skills, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving, it also refers to foundational skills such as proficiency in reading, mathematics, and other key competences without which individuals cannot effectively engage in more complex thinking, adapt to new challenges, or fully participate in an increasingly elaborate and interconnected world. They are the building blocks of lifelong learning and adaptability in the face of rapid technological and societal changes.

The ETF draws on a range of international and national data sources to regularly monitor the extent to which partner countries and their education and training systems succeed in delivering skills of foundational importance for the future to young and adult learners, as well as the context in which this takes place. Recently we released the results of the 2023 round of KIESE and Torino Process evidence collection covering 21 of our countries, Education, skills and employment: Trends and developments, which coincided with the release by the OECD of the 2022 round of its flagship Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which covers 16 ETF partner countries.

How well do ETF partner countries deliver foundational skills and to whom?

Both monitoring initiatives provide interesting insights into how educational systems across different contexts are adapting to the demands of equipping students with foundational and future-oriented skills, which are essential for full participation in social and economic life. The results suggest that the vast majority of our partner countries struggle to equip young learners with basic skills and competences.

On average, well over a third of students in the PISA sample across our countries, for instance, are functionally illiterate in mathematics and reading around the end of their compulsory education – a rate significantly higher than the average for OECD member countries. In addition, the Torino Process suggests that in most countries, the adult population appears to be better equipped with the skills and competences needed than young people in education and in particular vocational education and training (VET). Although in many partner countries, females of working age are still less likely than males to acquire essential skills from the training programmes on offer. Males are also more likely to find employment upon graduation.

The data also suggests that education systems across ETF partner countries are not sufficiently inclusive and struggle to provide equal opportunities to all students regardless of their background. In OECD countries, nearly half of all 15-year-olds perform below proficiency in at least one subject, a challenge that intensifies in ETF partner countries where this figure soars above 70%. This data reveals that a substantial share of students are not enrolled in school, or are enrolled but in grades lower than expected for their age, or are excluded in other ways or for other reasons.

The ETF monitoring and PISA results further suggest that, although Covid-19 was a shock with a multitude of consequences for economies and societies, in many countries it was not a sole trigger of performance decline, but rather a factor reinforcing long-standing developments. Countries that already were at the top of the PISA performance scale before the pandemic, for instance, braved the crisis better and did not see a dramatic change in their scores. Conversely, in countries where the quality of student learning deteriorated between 2018 and 2022, the health crisis likely exacerbated pre-existing systemic problems.

Some factors that may influence the provision of future-oriented skills

Determining student performance through PISA scores in reading, mathematics and science is fundamentally important. However, identifying actionable steps when performance is not satisfactory requires investigating the factors influencing these outcomes, especially factors like funding, staff availability or educational resources, which are directly within the control and purview of educational policymakers and practitioners. System-level factors like these represent areas where targeted policy interventions could directly influence educational quality and equity.

Data from PISA 2022 confirm that there is a significant association between educational spending per student and mathematics performance, demonstrating that up to a certain financial threshold (USD PPP 75,000 of cumulative per student expenditure between the ages of 6 and 16), increased investment correlates with better outcomes. Beyond this threshold, the impact of additional spending diminishes.

Except for Israel, ETF partner countries uniformly spend below this threshold and thus, their primary challenge lies in the need to boost spending on education. Simultaneously, this group of countries also faces the task of ensuring that education investment is allocated efficiently. Even though many spend similar amounts of money per student on education, they exhibit vast differences in student performance.  

The Torino Process data confirm as well that in many partner countries, there appears to be a noticeable divergence between the financial resources invested and the perceived adequacy of the material base in education and training. Some countries, for instance, seem to attach high priority to school and adult education in their funding decisions, but their commitment fails to translate into better and more widely available learning materials and infrastructure. Other countries deliver a commendable material base even with relatively modest financial inputs.

These observations suggest that merely spending money is not enough; the key to improving student performance lies in how efficiently and wisely the money is allocated and spent within the educational system, especially in a context of resource shortages that is particularly common in ETF partner countries.

Material resources in education play a role in supporting good quality learning. The data reveal that schools with adequate material resources (i.e., educational materials, physical infrastructure, and digital resources) are relevant for student performance in mathematics. Before accounting for socioeconomic factors, well-equipped schools across OECD countries appear to outperform those facing resource shortages. This holds true for all ETF partner countries with statistically significant values. When students’ and schools’ socioeconomic profile is taken into consideration, the shortage of material resources becomes less significant, indicating that disadvantaged schools and students suffer the most from a lack of material resources.

The data collected also highlight a growing concern regarding the availability of educational staff, with an increasing number of principals reporting shortages. This shift points to teacher availability becoming a more pressing challenge than material shortages, affecting the ability to deliver quality instruction. Interestingly, the emphasis on material resource shortages varies by country, indicating a diverse range of challenges within different educational systems.

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