This post comes from Roland Schneider of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC). It summarises TUAC’s submission to the meeting of education ministers taking place at the OECD today and tomorrow.
Education, training and learning have become important action points for trade unions across OECD member countries. Unions have spread the learning message in a variety of ways: through social dialogue and collective bargaining with employers, through taking part in the governance of vocational education and training (VET) systems; through innovation such as the establishment of union learning representatives providing support for workers in taking up training opportunities; as well as to insist that employers increase their provision of training and demand for skills.
TUAC’s submission to today’s meeting of education ministers at the OECD warns against taking an excessively utilitarian view of the purposes of education. It is essential to defend the broader value of education in enhancing the ability of individuals to contribute to the wider cultural, political and civic life.
Government policy on education must not neglect the right of all individuals to undertake learning as an intrinsically worthwhile activity. Policies to promote education, training and lifelong learning must go beyond a focus on employability alone; they must continue to be guided by a broad vision of the purposes and benefits of education.
A prevailing financing gap in education does not allow for spending to be slashed
As Education at a Glance 2010 points out, education is a large item of public expenditure in most countries. However, the data show that before the crisis most governments had not increased spending on education in line with growth in national income. Against the background of a prevailing financing gap in education, it was significant that the education sector benefited in many countries from the implementation of fiscal stimulus packages.
These packages provided important funds for investment in infrastructure, including educational buildings, as well as in training. However, the shift to austerity policies raises major risks. The challenge of making public finances sustainable must not be taken as an excuse to cut education spending. Students can’t acquire world class skills in ill-equipped, broken and battered schools, staffed with poorly paid teachers. Public spending on education has large and rising benefits for individuals as well as for society a whole.
Budget cuts in education would have large adverse consequences on institutions, staff and quality of education provision through reductions in teaching and support staff, reduced availability of teaching and learning materials, larger class sizes, suspended construction projects and less maintenance of buildings. Moreover, it would disproportionately harm those who are most vulnerable by creating new barriers for the disadvantaged.
OECD work on vocational education and training must go beyond employability
Another challenge to be addressed is to base skills policy on more realistic expectations of what can be achieved. An open and honest debate is necessary about how education and training policy can contribute to sustainable growth, decent work, social justice and inclusion. Vocational education and training policy cannot focus narrowly on the supply of skills, assuming that skills, once created, will automatically be utilized to their full potential.
Governments must attempt to integrate VET policy into a wider package of contextual factors and determinants that shape the formation of skills as well as their use. VET policy must in particular take into account the workplace and industrial relations context in which skills are created and mobilized and thus ensure union involvement in the design and implementation of training policy, as well as in the assessment and subsequent revision of curricula. Governments must also tackle underinvestment in training by employers by encouraging them to increase the levels of investment and commitments regarding skills development and training.
Blaming educational underachievement on teachers is dangerous
Qualified teachers must be at the heart of any educational reform. There is no doubt that the quality of teachers is an important in-school factor determining learning outcomes. However, it’s not the only one. There are also many factors, like the quality of school leadership, the quality of the curriculum and last but not least teacher collaboration.
Blaming educational underachievement on teachers is aiming at the wrong target. It distracts attention from other equally and likewise important school areas in need of improvement. Personnel management of teachers, based on an inappropriate evaluation systems is likely to undermine the morale and commitment of teachers, to discourage them from working with those with particular learning needs and causing many to leave the profession. At the same time, it will prevent others from entering the profession.
Promoting social cohesion through education remains an important objective
The implementation of market mechanisms in education comes at the cost of increased social polarisation. Social cohesion must remain an important policy objective. In order to accomplish this, there is a particular role for education as well as for a broad range of policies. Bringing about social cohesion depends on the acquisition of skills and competencies as well as on the transmission of values through education. However, it also depends on the distribution of skills and opportunities. With regard to the latter, it is essential to confront the role that social class plays in reproducing educational inequalities and learning outcomes across generations.
It is important that education policies do not exclusively focus on improving students’ cognitive outcomes; they must also aim to enhance non-cognitive skills, primarily through targeted programs and improved conditions for teaching and learning. In order to promote non-cognitive skills, a reduction of the size of classes is essential in many cases. Class-size reduction as an element of school reform is anything but expensive and unproductive. As research has revealed, reductions in class size facilitate the improvement of non-cognitive skills related to student engagement. They also matter for subsequent academic and labour market success. Enhancing non-cognitive skills facilitates at the same time better social behaviour, linked to encouragement, cooperation and sharing, and thus leads to improved learning outcomes.
The educationtoday blog has contributions from particpants in the ministerial meeting
The Future of our Schools a conference organised by the UK Trades Union Congress on 27 November 2010 in London