Better Plays for Better Lives: Romeo and Juliet

So wise so young, they say, do never live long
So wise so young, they say, do never live long

Today we publish the next article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Before there was punk, there was Shakespeare, and his Romeo. Communication between generations has never been fluid. At the start of the play, Romeo is a brooding, isolated teenager, and his parents are at a loss about what to do with him; “Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow / We would as willingly give cure as know.” Worse, Romeo is part of a brawling, bawdy gang-orientated youth culture. The overall context of the play appears to be one of society in crisis, parents can no longer control their children, whilst the presiding Prince of Verona has trouble maintaining law and order; “On pain of torture, from those bloody hands / Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground.”

Although emerging unrest continues to feature in our modern world, unlike Romeo’s father Old Montague, we can have a good guess at what ails today’s youth. OECD labour data indicate a 16.3% average OECD unemployment rate among 15-24 year olds in 2012, rising to 55.3% for Greece and 53.2% for Spain. Both these last figures have continued to climb into 2013. By way of comparison, in 2012 average unemployment rates (15-64 year olds) were 8.2% for OECD countries, 24.5% for Greece and 25.2% for Spain. Then there’s the NEET group (Not in Education Employment or Training); in 2012 12.9% of OECD 15-24 year olds fitted into this category. These individuals run the highest risk of long-term exclusion from the labour market. Youth in OECD key partner countries also suffered into 2012, with a 51.5% youth unemployment rate in South Africa and 14.8% in Russia.

Ok, ok, you say, but why all the fuss about youth unemployment? They’re young and fit, they’ll bounce back! After all, “Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye” in contrast to the “unbruisèd youth with unstuffed brain.” Maybe not however, as the OECD Employment Outlook 2013 warns; “Youth need to be actively supported to avoid long-term “scarring” effects as a result of prolonged unemployment and low-income spells early in their careers.” This significantly affects society as whole, as individual scarring generates collective long-term, structural unemployment problems due to a loss of human capital and vital skills.

Furthermore, at OECD Forum 2013 Ian Hickie, Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Sydney, explained why scarring is particularly detrimental for young people. Rapid changes take place in the brain between the ages of 15-25, and participation has positive effects on these changes, while exclusion has negative ones. OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría reminds us that exclusion from the job market often leads to exclusion elsewhere; “Youth unemployment often means material hardship, dire future prospects and delaying vital steps into adulthood, such as leaving home, building relationships or starting a family.” Romeo himself does not fit into his friend Mercutio’s description of “lovers’ brains” that “dream of love”, but instead speaks with dread of a bleak future; “For my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.”

What “cure” then for this crisis or is it to be governed by the “stars”?  The OECD Action Plan for Youth is designed to leverage OECD work on education, skills and youth-related employment policies, in order contribute to national and international youth unemployment reduction efforts. It calls for a two-pronged approach; tackle the current crisis, but also address structural problems, in order to ensure better outcomes for youth in the future.

Elements to aid the first objective include boosting job creation, addressing demand-side barriers to the employment of low-skilled youth, and encouraging employers to continue or expand quality apprenticeships. Examples of policy action would be stronger incentives for employers to hire new workers, with lower social security contributions where appropriate. Elements for the second objective include strengthening the role and status of Vocational Education and Training (VET), as well as matching education with employers’ demand for skills; “The co-existence of young unemployed or under-employed graduates, with employers who say they cannot find the people with the skills they need, suggests that there is scope to better link education systems with the world of work.”

On education policy design and investment, OECD Special Advisor on Education Policy Andreas Schleicher notes, “Our education today, is our economy tomorrow, so we are going to pay a price.” Romeo is “The only son” of the House of Montague. Likewise, Juliet is the only offspring of the House of Capulet, as Old Capulet makes clear: “Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she: / She’s the hopeful lady of my earth.” Their passing away points towards something stronger than death: the end of hope, the onset of sterility and the destruction of all of tomorrow’s promise (“No future”, as the punks said). By the end of the play, the better part of Verona’s youth lie dead – Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Juliet and her Romeo. The Prince bitterly declares, “All are punish’d”; for without the youth, society will pay a very high price indeed. But the death of the young in Verona also finally paves way for reconciliation in society. The play embodies the concept of creative destruction, an old order dying and a new one emerging, often with violent side effects; “The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb / What is her burying grave, that is her womb.”

Fortunately for us today, “High youth unemployment is not inevitable, even during an economic crisis; it is the product of the interaction between economic context and particular policies. What matters more are the choices countries make in how to allocate…spending and the policies they design to improve the efficiency and relevance of the education they provide.”

There are choices to be made because ultimately, “we cannot afford this waste.”

Post Script

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Useful links

Give youth a chance by Monika Kosinska, Secretary-General European Public Health Alliance, at OECD Forum 2013

OECD educationtoday blog

Arab Spring: Repercussions and opportunities for education

Probably not celebrating his exam results

On the eve of the July 7th elections in Libya, today’s post is from Philip Hodkinson of Greys College in the UK

It would be hard not to be aware of the huge changes sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa these past two years, and with so many spectacular and dramatic events still unfolding, it’s no surprise that more mundane issues such as education never grab the headlines. Yet education will be one of the foundations of both democracy and a modern economy in the region.

As the OECD’s International Migration Outlook 2012 shows, education is now an international affair, with international students accounting on average for more than 6% of all students in OECD countries. In the UK, the figure is over twice that, 15.3% of tertiary-level students according to the Outlook. The turmoil created by the Arab Spring has seen many students losing their grants and other means of living, leading to the demise of a significant number of private colleges in the North of England whose clientele are mainly from these areas. My own college, Greys, is fortunate in having a slightly wider spread of students, but we’ve felt the impact too, so to see the situation for myself and to find out more about the education and training needs of the region, over the last six months I have travelled extensively to talk to people on the ground and map the changes in thinking by them and the new administrations.

Oman and Qatar have many highly-educated young people with degree-level achievement. They have also brought into being a new second tier of learning. It takes the form of accredited vocational training in both private and government supported training centres, closely following UK’s national Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system. Bahrain has also chosen this route and I was part of the support unit helping set up their National Institute for Industrial Training, in 2008/9.

From discussions I had with personnel at the ministries of those countries, they are pleased with the results of these programmes but are now aware of the lack of quality assurance within their systems. This needs to be addressed to give students confidence in the national validity of their qualifications. As well as the obvious reasons for this, another factor is that all these countries have historically bought in technical expertise, therefore this type of learning, and the jobs they lead to, are traditionally looked down upon and therefore retain a stigma.

Libya has all the assets of its Gulf neighbours but has been in something of a time warp for 40 years. Even those young people who have degrees, and there are many, look to the public sector for employment, the private sector being thought of as inefficient. That said, the major oil companies have well-established training programmes, designed by themselves to meet their individual needs. The Transitional government is very keen to change this and has already taken steps to support new training businesses. To develop their strategy, they are now looking to build a national framework of vocational training and education to meet the requirements of a growing private economy. The oil companies I think will have a major role to play in this, not least to standardise requirements.

Elections are to be held on the 7th July, and from sources within the administration, it is clear that although routes to higher education will still be supported, the main focus will be vocational training to provide that depth of opportunity for all. All sections of the political scene have this on their agenda, as like their Gulf neighbours, they understand one of the major gains will be a sizeable reduction in youth unemployment. The only option until now after leaving full-time education, was for Libyans to go on to university and gain a degree, which largely limited opportunities.

The other gain is less tangible although no less important. That is the sense of freedom for students to achieve the things they want to, make a living, and enjoy a good life.

The situation in Libya is changing, and although, like Egypt, still volatile, an acceptance that change will take some time is growing, but lots of people want to see some immediate results, a sort of image of things to come. Any government will have to balance the level of quick fixes to long-term improvements in daily life if they are to lead their country to lasting prosperity. One of the first things they may do, is form a government-sponsored training organisation, as has happened in some of the Gulf States. This could then be a springboard to contract with a range of suppliers, looking to gain high-quality training and education at a realistic market price. This mechanism can also be used to develop training around the country, producing tangible evidence of improvement and fairness.

It’s too early to say yet, and after the elections things will become clearer, but setting national standards of work will probably become an issue. Presently, as in the UK 50 years ago, the larger companies, which here means the oil companies, have their own training standards. Engaging these organisations in the process of unity would need to be a first step. One major oil company has already asked me to examine the UK training system for their industry, which would suggest they are at least open to change.

Libya has huge tasks ahead of it although none insurmountable if they are patient. But, with many people in positions they have never held before, education and training will, of necessity, be at the fore.

Useful links

OECD participation in the “Building Future Education MENA” conference

OECD work on higher education and adult learning

OECD work on conflict and fragility

OECD educationtoday blog

More power to your grannies

50A logo.PNG

If you want a solar engineer, get a granny. That was the message of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, founder of India’s Barefoot College at a session on women’s economic empowerment at the OECD’s 50th Anniversary Forum.

Mr. Roy explained that there was little benefit in training men from rural villages — “men are untrainable, they are restless and compulsively mobile,” he said. “There’s no point in training them, because when they get a certificate they leave the village.” So, his Barefoot College instead trains grandmothers – women who have usually never left their home village and have little wish to do so. “Grandmothers come screaming onto the plane,” he told the audience, “they hate leaving their lives behind.”

But if the journey is painful, it’s also worthwhile, especially for the home villages of the women. As Mr. Roy explained, the college has trained hundreds of women from India and further afield, including 200 women from across Africa. “Through sign language, not through the written word, we trained these women to be solar engineers,” he said.

Once they return home, they’re keen to pass on their knowledge – another characteristic that distinguishes them from the male counterparts: “If you train a man, he doesn’t want to pass on his knowledge for fear of losing his job,” said Mr. Roy. For the village, electricity can be transformative. Solar lamps mean there’s light for midwives when they’re delivering babies. Access to power also means there’s more for people to do once night falls, which helps cut down the birth rate

Mr. Roy’s reflections were just part of a fascinating discussion on empowering women, and the impact that has more widely for societies. Melanne S. Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, argued that there was no better way to drive economic growth than women’s economic empowerment. “Women who run small and mediums enterprises are growth accelerators,” she said.

From North Africa, Nizar Baraka, a minister from the Moroccan government, said events in the region this year showed there was a real demand for recognition of people’s dignity – and, “in order to have dignity we need gender equality”. That meant ensuring women had access to employment, he said, and the opportunities to create their own enterprises. In the Middle East and North African region, he said, women accounted for only about 10% of entrepreneurs, compared with 30% in OECD countries. But, he said, progress was being made, with the creation of a range of “incubators” and mentoring programmes to encourage women to set up their own businesses.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative

Policies promoting education and training must go beyond employability


Encourgement, cooperation and sharing...

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. (more…)