Report Summary

The value which education can provide through the inculcation of skills is enormous. Looking at economic outcomes alone, the OECD estimates that half of the economic growth in developed countries in the last decade came from better skills. How best to give those abilities to students is therefore a matter of great importance.

This report considers what new lessons we have learned about how to inculcate skills in students; it examines how to maintain or expand skill levels among adults and explores the relevance of developed-world answers to these questions for emerging markets.

The main findings are as follows:

East Asian nations continue to outperform others, while Scandinavia shows mixed results. In the latest edition of the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, South Korea tops the rankings, followed by Japan (2nd), Singapore (3rd) and Hong Kong (4th). The success of these countries highlights the importance of having clear goalposts for the educational system and a strong culture of accountability among all stakeholders. Scandinavian countries, strong performers in international education rankings since the 1990s, display mixed results. Finland, the 2012 Index leader, has fallen to 5th place, due to its performance in the 2012 PISA tests. Sweden has also declined (from 21st to 24th), fuelling the debate over the country’s free schools policy. Denmark and Norway, however, have made gains (rising to 11th and 21st position, respectively). Other notable improvers this year include Israel (up 12 places to 17th), which achieved major gains in PISA maths and science scores, Russia (up seven places to 13th) and Poland (up four places to 10th).

PISA results show the value of engaging all of society in education. Many of the messages about educational success from this year’s PISA reinforce those from earlier years. A wider range of survey questions accompanying the test, however, point to the importance of widespread engagement with the education system. Schools in which principals work with teachers on school management, and thus can function autonomously, tend to produce better results; parental expectations have a measurable impact on student motivation; and student interest has an effect on outcomes in a variety of ways. Effective education requires a broad range of actors, which points to the benefit of having a broadly supportive culture.

Better adult retention of skills depends on how often, and the environment within which, they are used. All adults lose skills over time, but better skill retention depends on the environment in which they are used. The OECD’s PIAAC study found that from around 25 years of age, skill levels tend to decline, even when accounting for the quality of initial education. Skills need to be used in order to be maintained; greater levels of personal or workplace reading and mathematical activity lead to a slower decline in skill scores over time. An adult learning infrastructure, possibly outside the formal education system, is likely to facilitate this.

Lifelong learning helps slow age-related skill decline mainly for those who are highly skilled already. It is difficult to determine the impact of adult education and training on individuals because those who engage in it are almost always already highly educated and skilled. Teaching adults, therefore, does very little to make up for a poor school system; a strong foundation is important not just for inculcating skills in the first place, but also for maintaining them. Moreover, those with high skills continue to maintain them for a reason; adult education needs to find ways to convince low-skilled individuals of its value.

Before focusing on 21st century skills, developing countries must teach basic skills more effectively. Many, but not all, of the lessons of PISA and PIAAC for developed countries are useful for developing ones. The unique needs of developing countries can differ widely from those in the OECD. As a result, nations such as Brazil and South Africa may be able to derive useful insights about investing in teachers and the status of the teaching profession, as well as the importance of accountability. But the 21st century skills debate will have less resonance in systems that often have difficulty teaching more basic skills successfully.

An interactive website presenting all the data, analysis and the full report and Index can be found at


    Published:May 8th 2014

    Dr Paul Kielstra
    Sara Mosavi

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