Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy. In addition, education may improve people's lives in such areas as health, civic participation, political interest and happiness. Studies show that educated individuals live longer, participate more actively in politics and in the community where they live, commit fewer crimes and rely less on social assistance.

Years in education

In a fast-changing knowledge economy, education is about learning skills for life. But how many years of school, college, or training will future generations expect to have? The answer is that on average in the OECD, people can expect to go through about 17.5 years of education, judging by the number of people between the ages of 5 and 39 currently in school. Results range from 14.4 years of education in Mexico, to nearly 20 years in Finland.

Educational attainment

Having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money. Highly-educated individuals are less affected by unemployment trends, typically because educational attainment makes an individual more attractive in the workforce. Lifetime earnings also increase with each level of education attained.

Furthermore, the skills needed in the labour market are becoming more knowledge-based. This shift in demand has made an upper secondary degree, or high-school degree, the minimum credential for finding a job in almost all OECD countries. High-school graduation rates therefore provide a good indication of whether a country is preparing its students to meet the minimum requirements of the job market.

On average, about 76% of adults aged 25-64 within the OECD have completed upper secondary education. In 32 OECD countries and the Russian Federation, 60% or more of the population aged 25 to 64 has completed at least upper secondary education. In some countries, the opposite is true: in Mexico and Turkey, 60% or more of the population aged 25 to 64 have not completed upper secondary education. Women are, however, more likely to complete a tertiary or university degree than men in most OECD countries, a reversal of the historical pattern. On average across OECD countries, 35% of women aged 25-64 attain a tertiary education compared with 32% of men.

Students' skills

But graduation rates, while important, speak little to the quality of education received. The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews the extent to which students near the end of their compulsory education (usually around age 15) have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies, particularly in reading, mathematics and science. 

In 2012, PISA tested students from 65 countries, including OECD countries, Brazil, Latvia and the Russian Federation. The students were tested on their reading ability, their skills in maths and level in sciences. Research shows that these skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school or in post-formal education. The average student in the OECD area scored 497. Girls outperformed boys in all countries, except for Chile, and Luxembourg. On average in the OECD, girls scored 501 compared with 493 for boys. This gap is even greater in Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey and the Russian Federation.

Korea and Japan are the highest-performing OECD countries, with average PISA scores of 542 and 540 points, respectively. Other top-performing OECD countries in students' skills include Finland (529), Estonia (526), Canada (522) and Poland (521). The lowest performing OECD country, Mexico, has an average score of 417. This means that the gap between the highest and lowest performing OECD countries is 125 points. The gap with Brazil is even larger, with 140 points separating the average performance of Brazil and Korea.

The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In Estonia, Iceland and Norway for example, students tend to perform well regardless of their social background. In France and the Slovak Republic however, the gap between the students with the lowest socio-economic background and the students with the highest socio-economic background reaches more than 125 points, suggesting students' socio-economic background tends to have an impact on their results. On average across OECD countries, there is a 96-point difference in PISA scores between the students with the highest and lowest socio-economic background.  

Education in Detail by Country