GLOBAL: OECD ministers debate education for new skills

The kinds of skills workers need are changing rapidly, and education and training systems must adapt to equip young people for different kinds of jobs, new technologies and unforeseen problems. Teachers, as the key professionals on the front line, are facing new demands and expectations. Meanwhile, countries are grappling with multiple effects of the global financial crisis.

These were among issues discussed at the Education Ministerial Meeting of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris last week, which focused on the theme Investing in Skills for the 21st Century: New challenges.

Ministers from 38 countries attended the meeting, including 32 OECD members and accession candidate countries Estonia and the Russian Federation, 'enhanced engagement' countries Indonesia and South Africa, as well as Egypt, Romania and representatives from the European Commission, Unesco and the Council of Europe.

As background to the talks, the OECD said the recession had forced most of its member governments to cut spending, including on education. Cuts had fallen mainly on higher education, but vocational education and training was another vulnerable sector.

A dramatic consequence was the sharp deterioration of the labour market, especially for the young - in the OECD area there were nearly 15 million young people unemployed, a rise of six percentage points to almost 19% in the two years to end-2009.

Meanwhile, the nature of skills needed for jobs was changing rapidly, with "jobs that have not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that cannot be foreseen", said the OECD.

Routine cognitive tasks could now be computerised, leading to a decline in demand for such skills, whereas there were increases in demand for complex communication and non-routine analytical skills requiring individuals to develop problem-solving and inquiry-based learning.

But such skills shortages often did not translate efficiently into curricula and learning provision, "either because education systems lack effective means to identify, articulate, recognise and communicate required skills from those who use them to the institutions who develop them, or because they do not have the staff and instructional methods to develop them".

In the frontline, teachers needed to be equipped for greatest effectiveness, said the OECD, but at present there was a gap between effective 'learning environments' and actual classroom practice.

Major changes were necessary, including identification of the key competences 21st century teachers needed; training programmes to ensure they developed "a more comprehensive understanding of how cognition, motivation, teaching and learning work together and can put this understanding into practice"; appropriate resources; performance assessments and evaluation tools; and technological applications and innovations that fitted the nature and aims of learning.

Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary-General, told ministers the world had changed dramatically since they last met in 2006 in Athens. As a result of "the effects of the economic and financial crisis, we have to adapt to new circumstances.

"We must confront the consequences of the crisis on education and how education can help support a job-rich recovery," he said.

While some countries had been able to maintain education spending levels "others had to make difficult decisions and approved education budgets that are less than might have been hoped for".

Growing demands on health, housing, pensions and security would put pressure on future education spending, said Gurria. "We need to prove that our investments in education are delivering the highest possible returns in terms of income and job opportunities for individuals."

Governments needed to become more effective in matching students' and workers' skills to the new needs of markets and having effective teachers who could do the job. Learners had to be prepared with "skills for a rapidly changing reality", he said.

After the meeting Claudia Schmied, Austria's Federal Minister for Education, the Arts and Culture who chaired the talks, said the ministers recognised the need for adequate levels of investment in education, which was a driver of long-term growth and social cohesion.

"We need more and better skilled people to ensure future prosperity in our increasingly global and diverse societies."

She said ministers agreed they must "do better to prevent failure and dropout, and we have to address youth unemployment; we cannot afford to waste any of our human capital potential."

Teachers were the key professionals in education: "When they succeed, our students are effective and motivated learners. We need to give teachers and school leaders the tools and support they need to do their job well," said Schmied.

Some countries had pointed to the difficulties of attracting those with the right mix of skills and personality into the teaching profession, and the ministers recognised the need to raise teachers' status and esteem, through such means as salaries, raising teacher entry standards and greater professional recognition, said Schmied.

More focus was needed on higher quality teacher training and professional development, particularly in initial teacher training, teacher induction and early teaching support, and on teacher selection to attract the best to the teaching profession, she said.

An appropriate system of accreditation and continuing regular evaluation was essential to provide teachers with the feedback they needed to improve throughout their career.