OECD findings on education demonstrates the need for a better quality of education than the state can afford alone

The biggest challenge facing Britain today is the high rate of drop outs from education and employment, according to the latest annual report on education from the OECD. The organisation finds that young people without any post-secondary qualifications are more likely to be out of work or in a low paid job in the future – and notes that this trend is growing.

Nearly a quarter of British people aged between 15 and 30 with no secondary school qualifications were not in employment, education or training (Neet) in 2011. Meanwhile, the amount of time young Brits spend unemployed or out of the labour force (2.3 years on average) is much higher than in other countries including Germany (1.7 years), Australia (1.7 years), Norway (1.3 years), Iceland (1.2 years), and the Netherlands (1.1 years).

OECD graph

At present, the proportion of people enrolled in education in the UK falls drastically past the compulsory leaving age of 16 (down to 59 per cent for 18-year-olds and 51 per cent for 19-year-olds). The government has plans to increase the leaving age to 18, but deputy director for education and skills at the OECD Andreas Schleicher says that “locking people up in school isn’t necessarily leading to better skills”.

Labour MP Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, commented on the findings:

David Cameron has no plan for the forgotten 50 per cent - those who do not want to go to university. One Nation means a system that works for all young people – not the few. Labour will deliver a rigorous vocational offer with a Gold Standard Technical Baccalaureate qualification at 18, including maths and English and a work experience guarantee for all.

It’s worth noting that UK public expenditure on education increased by 12 per cent in the two years following the financial crisis (compared to the total UK public expenditure rise of three per cent and the OECD average of six per cent). We will have to see in Osborne's spending round tomorrow whether the education ringfence has been kept up. Meanwhile, expenditure per student has gone up by 38 per cent between 2000 and 2010.

It’s clear from this report and others that increasing public spending on education is no guarantee of better results – this can be seen even more clearly on a school-by-school basis. The Reform think tank has shown that school budgets could be cut by a fifth, and that some schools are spending twice as much as others to register the same exam results. A report from the Adam Smith Institute in 2011, meanwhile, showed that 41 per cent of the profit-making schools in England operate on fees less than or on a par with the national average per-pupil funding in the public sector.

Allowing more schools to operate with a profit motive and allowing parents more choice would not, as scaremongers say, create a further gap in the quality of education between the richest and poorest, but increase the level of competition between schools, pushing up standards (and therefore employability of students), and increasing spending efficiency.