The education revolution

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. Today’s post is by Eric Charbonnier of the OECD Education Directorate

If there’s one thing that’s changed rapidly over the past 100 years, it’s education. University for example used to be reserved for a small elite, whereas now around 40% of 25-34 year olds in OECD countries graduate from the education system with a higher diploma. Qualifications still play a major role in career development. The higher the diploma, the more its holder is likely to contribute to economic growth and, especially in the recent economic downturn, be protected from the worst impacts of the crisis. This is particularly true in France and other European countries where those with no qualifications find themselves in an extremely precarious position in the job market.

Mass expansion of higher education has other consequences too. A high school diploma used to open the door to many professions, but now that it has become the norm in most OECD countries, it no longer sets the graduate apart as it used to. It could even be argued that the main impact of such a diploma is now negative in a sense, since not having one has a bigger impact on a young person’s prospects than having one. Diplomas awarded for a general course are affected most. They are now seen as a stepping stone on the way to further education, rather than a milestone marking the transition to adult life and entry into the workforce.

Even France’s famous baccalaureate is coming under increasing criticism as being too expensive, too easy to obtain, and offering few prospects as such, despite its status as an irreproachable “national treasure”. Despite strong historical links dating from its support by Napoleon in 1808, there’s no doubt that the “bac” will evolve in the coming years to become more like what is found in other OECD countries – a diploma based on continuous assessment and a final exam that is limited to the fundamentals.

Access to education has become more democratic, even if social disparities still remain too important. But the gap is nothing like it was before. To return to the baccalaureate for a minute, the first woman wasn’t allowed to sit the exam until 1861, and even then, it was another half a century (1924) before men and women answered the same questions.

As well as becoming more democratic, education has become more globalised, with countries competing to attract the best students. The number of students studying in a foreign country was multiplied by 5 over 1975-2012, rising from 800,000 to 4.5 million. This trend looks set to strengthen in the coming years, and countries will develop multiple strategies not just to attract students, but to keep them in their workforce after graduation, as Australia and New Zealand do already.

The sudden transformations brought about by mass education and globalised education were not foreseen, but access to education and knowledge now condition success and personal fulfilment in modern society. Despite all the changes since 1914 though, one thing remains the same: the role of teachers is as central is transmitting knowledge nowadays as it has been since the dawn of time, despite the constant changes to their profession. When you read about schools a hundred years ago, or look at the early class photos, it’s striking how similar all the pupils are. Today, many teachers are used to having children from a wide range of backgrounds in their class. Teaching methods have changed significantly too, as has the level of knowledge and professionalism demanded of staff. But in 2014 as in 1914, teachers are still the key to students’ success, which is why a growing number of OECD countries are placing teachers’ initial training and professional development at the heart of education reforms.

Even if there has been a revolution in schooling over the past century, the quality of an education system will never be greater than the quality of its teachers. It was true in 1914, remains true in 2014, and will no doubt still be true in 2114.

Useful links

Education GPS, the OECD source for internationally comparable data and analysis on education

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