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 18 years of education, judging by the number of people between the ages of 5 and 39 currently in school. Results range from about 14 years of education in Colombia, to over 20 years in Australia.

Educational attainment

Having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money to have a good quality of life. 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 79% of adults aged 25-64 within the OECD have completed upper secondary education. In 33OECD 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 Colombia, Mexico and Turkey, 57% 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, 42% of women aged 25-64 attain a tertiary education compared with 35% 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 2018, PISA tested students from 79 countries, including OECD countries, Brazil, the Russian Federation and South Africa. 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 488. On average in the OECD, girls scored 491 compared with 485 for boys. 

Estonia is the highest-performing OECD country, with average PISA scores of 526, followed by Japan and Korea with 520 points. The lowest performing OECD country, Colombia, has an average score of 406. This means that the gap between the highest and lowest performing OECD countries is 120 points.

The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. InCanada, Estonia, Finland and Ireland for example, students tend to perform well regardless of their social background. In Israel and Luxembourg however, the gap between the students with the lowest socio-economic background and the students with the highest socio-economic background reaches more than 120 points, suggesting students' socio-economic background tends to have an impact on their results. On average across OECD countries, there is a widening 89-point difference in PISA scores between the students with the highest and lowest socio-economic background.

Education in Detail by Country