Skills for society

By Julia Laplane, OECD

The Universal Declaration of Human rights states that “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Yet, universal education has not been always been associated with such commendable motives. Take the Elementary Education Act of 1870, in England and Wales. This piece of legislation set the basis for universal education for all children aged 5-12, but much of the political reasoning behind it was military and economic. Prime Minister Gladstone was quick to see a connection between the success of the Prussian army in the Austro-Prussian War and the German education system: “Undoubtedly, the conduct of the campaign, on the German side, has given a marked triumph to the cause of systematic popular education”. Furthermore, industrialists viewed the lack of an effective education system in Britain as a threat to Britain’s productivity. With the introduction of the Education Act the main purpose of universal education became that of serving national interests and the country’s particular needs. 


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Were the skills needed at the time the same as those studied in school today? Is there such a thing as a core education of basic skills or “skills for life”? Clearly the teaching of some skills does not span centuries. The French Falloux laws of 1850 made sewing classes obligatory for girls, as this was seen as an essential and practical skill for young women in society. Today however, the bulk of school learning in OECD countries is heavily academic. The largest portion of the curriculum for primary students, 26% is devoted to reading and writing. Then come mathematics, and the arts. But what about other skills? Today, there is rising concern about the loss of training in skilled trades and industrial arts in school, which offers basic knowledge of home repair and manual craftsmanship. Yet, these skills are valued in the marketplace, where there is strong demand for skilled craftsmen (such as carpenters, electricians, mechanics etc...), to such an extent that 9% of manufacturers declared they were struggling to find enough skilled workers in 2011 in the US.

Another area of our education systems which is often underdeveloped and undervalued is that of art and music. Yet neglecting the arts as non-essential to society’s needs may, in fact, be counter-productive: according to the recent OECD report Art For Art’s Sake, arts education can enhance performance in core academic subjects such as mathematics, science, reading and writing. Arts education can also develop creative thinking and as such strengthen students’ academic motivation, self-confidence, and ability to communicate.

If we follow the idea that skills are an answer to society’s current needs, let’s look at what is expected of education today. The main priority for young people is to get a job. According to the recently released Education at a Glance: Highlights, education is still the best protection against unemployment. While 14% of 25-29 year olds who had not completed upper secondary education were unemployed in 2011, this percentage shrank to only 6% for those with tertiary education. This makes sense, in what has been described as our “heavily scholarised societies” by OECD’s Dirk Van Damme, referring to our intensive educational experience and the long hours pupils and students spend at school.

Yet a one-size-fits all education system can surely not answer society’s needs nor our ever-changing economies. Just as today it is considered essential to master basic practical computer skills in order to survive in the 21st century, new skills will be required in the future. Running in corridors might even be one of them. A school in Kent, UK, has recently developed special floor tiles that produce energy whenever people walk, run or jump on them. Going to school to produce sustainable energy: the motto for education is, more than ever, to answer society’s needs. 

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