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SECONDARY EDUCATION IN OECD COUNTRIESCommon challenges, differing solutionsPasi Sahlberg, Ph.D., European Training FoundationPrepared for “Seminário Internacional sobre Ensino Médio Diversificado” , Brasilia, Brazil, 17 Sept, 2007 European Training Foundation, 2007. Reproduction is authorised, provided the source isacknowledged, except for commercial purposes.1

Executive summaryDemand for secondary education is on the increase worldwide. More young people complete primaryschooling and an increasing number seek opportunities to continue learning in secondary schools. Moderneconomies and their labour markets need people with sophisticated knowledge, skills and competences thatcannot be developed only in primary school or in low-quality secondary schools. Therefore secondaryeducation has an important role in the development of education around the world.In most developed countries today approximately 90% of the lower secondary school leaving age cohortenrol in upper secondary education. The ratio of upper secondary graduates to the population at the typicalage of graduation in these countries is over 70%. Most students study in programmes that provide accessto tertiary education. However, this doesn’t mean that all these students study in general secondaryschools. In about half of the OECD countries the majority of upper secondary students attend vocational orapprenticeship programmes that also lead to a professional qualification. Many of these programmes alsooffer access to tertiary education. Today, 53% of young people in OECD countries will enter tertiary-type Aprogrammes and about 16% tertiary-type B programmes during their lifetime.On average across OECD countries 42% of the adult population have only completed upper secondaryeducation. Less than one-third of adults (30%) have obtained only the primary or lower secondary levels ofeducation and one-quarter (25%) have achieved a tertiary level of education. However, countries differwidely in the distribution of educational attainment across their populations.The organisation of upper secondary education is not unified. There are three principal ways to organiseupper secondary education in OECD countries:(i) Divided school-based upper secondary school system whereby upper secondary education is dividedinto general and vocational schools.(ii) Unified upper secondary school system whereby upper secondary education is organised within oneschool offering different programmes.(iii) Parallel school-based and work-based upper secondary school system whereby upper secondaryeducation has school-based general and work-based vocational education options.These organisational structures in most countries are a result of historical tradition rather than intentionaldesign.One of the main issues in education policy discussion today is how to secure access to better qualitysecondary education for all students. Policymakers need to be aware of different alternatives in order tohave a responsive and flexible upper secondary education system that simultaneously serves the needs ofemployers and lifelong learning. Policymakers should: guarantee real opportunities for all young people to continue learning in upper secondary education oftheir choice after completing compulsory education; avoid making upper secondary vocational education programmes a choice for lower achievers linkedto poor-quality jobs and no access to tertiary education; create credible pathways from secondary vocational education to tertiary education and encourage asignificant proportion of students to follow that path; and establish systematic student counselling and career guidance services in all basic schools to prevent alack of awareness of future options, and in all upper secondary schools to help students to overcometheir troubles and prevent dropout.OECD countries vary greatly in terms of organisation and performance of secondary education. Theyprovide an interesting arena to learn from different experiences. The education system in Finland is anexample that shows how good educational performance is attainable at reasonable cost using educationpolicies that emphasise equity, early intervention, teacher professionalism, school autonomy and trustunlike many other countries of the OECD. Improving the quality of secondary education requiressustainable leadership and cross-sector policies that address the importance of creating good knowledgeand skills already in primary school for all pupils. The Finnish model also demonstrates how preparingpupils well for the transition from basic to upper secondary school can increase the rate of successful careerdecisions and hence reduce student failure in upper secondary school.2

1. Introduction: The changing face of secondary educationSecondary education plays a dual role in today’s education systems. On one hand, it serves as an extendedplatform for all young people to further develop the knowledge and skills that are needed in civic society andthe knowledge economy. On the other hand it provides many young people with qualifications for the labourmarket and further learning. In the past, secondary education primarily served the elite as an educationaltransition to higher education. Today, in contrast, the great majority of the population enrols in secondaryeducation as lifelong learning is becoming a condition for successful employment and life. Secondary leveleducation is the last stage of education that is open to all, with on average around three quarters of youngpeople in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries receiving uppersecondary qualifications, compared to just one quarter gaining tertiary-level qualifications.Traditionally, secondary education has not been at the centre of attention in education policies until veryrecently. Education reforms, especially those financed by donors or international development institutions,have focused on improving access to and raising enrollments in primary education. Similarly, in nationaleducation policies the financing of higher education has often been put before secondary education. Onereason for this is a belief that rates of return are relatively higher for basic and higher education and thisoften justifies the investment policies.Today, in the international perspective the situation has changed. Demand for secondary education is onthe increase and the need for improving the quality and relevance of secondary schooling has been madeloud and clear. An international review of secondary education recently identified three factors for shiftingsecondary education to the policy spotlight (World Bank, 2005). First, as more young people completeprimary schooling, an increasing number of them seek opportunities to continue formal learning insecondary schools. Parents throughout the world are also looking for better education for their children thanthey had themselves. Second, the secondary school age cohort of young people is larger than ever before.These young people are clearly going to be the key in shaping our future. Turning what some perceive as asocial risk to a future hope requires that good and relevant options at the secondary level of formaleducation is offered to all young people who want to continue learning after compulsory schooling. Third,modern economies and dynamic labour markets need people with more sophisticated knowledge, skills andcompetences that cannot be developed only in primary school or in low-quality secondary schools. Lifelonglearning requires extended and better quality basic education that consists of primary education andsecondary education that fits the learning needs of young people.Figure 1. Distribution of the population over age 15 by educational attainment in Brazil, Mexico,Finland and KoreaSource: World Bank (2005)3

Some countries have implemented active secondary education policies since the late 1960s to providebetter opportunities for more young people to gain secondary education. For example, in Korea and Finland(that are both performing very well today in international student assessments) the government strategiesfirst focused on raising completion rates and improving the quality of primary education, and then, from1970s policy emphasis shifted to secondary education. Figure 1 shows how systematic efforts to improvethe quality of primary education and then open secondary education to all lead to an education pyramid thattoday is typical of many leading knowledge economies.During the past four decades some significant changes have shaped secondary education. Bearing in mindthat secondary education was initially created to serve academic higher education (educational orientation,curriculum, instructional methods, teachers, etc.) the following trends have emerged: secondary education is becoming an extension to primary (or compulsory) education rather thanterminal phase to prepare students for higher education; secondary education curriculum is becoming more like primary school curriculum with broader range ofsubjects, less specialisation and more integrated themes; modes of instruction in secondary schools are becoming similar to those increasingly used in primaryschools: project work, cooperative learning, alternative assessment methods etc.; and teachers teaching in secondary schools are being trained and recruited as primary school teachers,some of them teaching at secondary and lower secondary levels.Knowledge economies and globalised world of today require different knowledge and skills from youngpeople as they leave school and enrol in further studies or labour markets. Although the challenges insecondary education vary from one (OECD) country to another, there are several common challenges thatmost, if not all education systems are facing today. As enrollment in secondary education increases,enhancing the quality of teaching and learning becomes more difficult. There is a lot of evidence that betteraccess and higher participation rates in secondary education alone will not solve the problem, indeed, theymay create new ones. Herein is the main challenge: to secure good quality and meaningful learning for allstudents.In the following sections I discuss in more detail the changing secondary education policies in OECDcountries and describe various types of secondary education, enrollment patterns and provide somesuggestions for policy development. In the closing section I also offer a more detailed look at one country,Finland, in order to show concretely which secondary education policies were used to get the systemperforming well.2. Secondary education in the knowledge societyThe traditional structure of secondary education as a parallel bridge between primary education on oneside, and higher education and world of work on the other, is changing. Workforce in this millennium is lessinvolved in industrial production and isolated professions, and increasingly involved in knowledge work,services, communication and innovation. Economies and societies are therefore looking for ways to havetheir education systems more concentrated in building meta-cognitive and creative capitals that both arenecessary resources for both individuals and nations to succeed in competitive knowledge-based andinnovation-intensive world.The need to redesign education systems, including secondary education, comes from the notion thatchanging economic, social and ecological circumstances have created the need for individuals who areflexible, able to adjust to changing situations, to learn effectively and creatively and to create ideasproductively. Social and creative capitals are becoming increasingly important and sought aftercharacteristics of successful nations, just as basic knowledge and generic manual skills were the drivers ofindustrial countries. A good example of the changing skills requirement is illustrated by research carried outby Levy and Murnane (2004). In that study they divided the tasks performed by workers into five categories(also in World Bank, 2005):Expert thinking: solving problems for which there are no rule-based solutions;Complex communication: interacting with others to acquire information, to explain it, or to persuadeothers of its implications for action;Routine cognitive tasks: mental tasks that are well described by logical rules;Routine manual tasks: physical tasks that can be well described using rules;4

Non-routine manual tasks: physical tasks that cannot be well described as following set of “if-then-do”rules and that are difficult to computerise.Figure 2. Trends of routine and non-routine task input in the US economy (1969 - 1998)Source: Levy and Murnane (2004)Trends in the United States labour market since 1970 of each of these categories are presented in figure 2.Each trend reflects changes in the numbers of people employed in occupations emphasising that task.Trends are similar in many OECD countries and hence have been reflected in education policies.Secondary education is commonly seen as the cycle of education that consolidates and further developsyoung peoples’ thinking skills, interpersonal and communication skills and strengthens lifelong learningattitudes. In many countries, therefore, secondary education regardless of its organisation and structure hasbecome a continuation of primary (and lower secondary) schooling for the vast majority of young people inOECD countries. This has shifted away from its role as a terminal phase for higher education oremployment.In the 1960s a majority of adults in almost all societies had only basic education or less. For example, inFinland, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy 80–90% of the adult population of 15 years or older had only basiceducation and 10–20%, some type of secondary education qualification. Changing labour markets in manyOECD countries as shown in figure 2 called for a better educated labour force with diffe