Governments must step up their efforts to encourage lifelong learning, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The conclusions of the latest edition of the organisation's Education Policy Analysis were on the agenda at this week's meeting of OECD education ministers, for discussions on how citizens could benefit from opportunities to upgrade education and skills throughout their lives.
The report reviews the achievements of OECD member states - the world's 30 richest countries - since 1996, when ministers committed themselves to a "cradle-to-grave" vision of lifelong learning.
John Martin, director for education, employment, labour and social affairs, said investment in lifelong learning "must be a top priority for OECD countries in the years ahead".
The consensus on education and training "shared by politicians from George W. Bush to Tony Blair" was based on "a belief that investing in high-quality education and training is the key determinant in an increasingly globalised world economy; that education has a key role to play in fostering citizenship and social cohesion; and, in the context of ageing populations, there is growing pressure on individuals and firms to upgrade their competences and skills".
Reviewing progress, the report finds "grounds for optimism and grounds for caution".
Though "many pieces of the lifelong learning jigsaw can already be widely observed in OECD countries... no country has yet put them together to complete the jigsaw", it says.
It identifies education inequalities that are "compounded by inferior access among traditionally disadvantaged groups to computers and the internet, especially at home", though schools play an important part in reducing the digital divide.
Increased public spending does not always produce good education systems, it says, though countries with strong all-round performances - in particular Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden - are high spenders.
Spending trends in tertiary education from 1990 to 1996 show that only Australia and Spain increased expenditure per student by more than 10 per cent in the face of substantial student expansion. Extra students elsewhere were financed through flexible, cheaper options such as part-time courses, distance learning or private colleges.
The report presents six scenarios for the school of the future, setting out the policy issues and strategic choices that face ministers for shaping schooling in the long term. It places the possibilities in three categories:
- Status quo - schools continue as they are, possibly with greater reliance on market approaches that could have positive effects by introducing innovation, or negative results such as increased risks of exclusion
- Re-schooling - development of social links and community leadership could strengthen public recognition, support and autonomy of schools, which could become "learning organisations" with a strong focus on knowledge and highly motivated teachers
- De-schooling: dismantling school institutions and systems and replacing them with non-formal learning networks driven by information and communications technologies. In the worst case, policies would fail to prevent severe teacher shortages (faced by many OECD countries), and retrenchment, conflict and falling standards would lead to more or less extensive "meltdown".
Education Policy Analysis - Education and Skills , OECD, Paris 2001.