What wise parents want for their children is what governments should sant for all children

Perhaps the most impressive outcome of world-class school systems is that they deliver high-quality education across the entire school system so that every student benefits from excellent teaching. In the latest PISA assessment, the 10 per cent most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in the four Chinese provinces that took part outperformed the average student in the OECD area and the students from the most privileged backgrounds in Spain.

Achieving greater equity in education is not only a social-justice imperative, it is also a way to use resources more efficiently, and to increase the supply of knowledge and skills that fuel economic growth and promote social cohesion. Children from wealthier families will find many open doors to a successful life. But children from poor families often have just one chance in life, and that is a good school that gives them an opportunity to develop their potential. Those who miss that boat rarely catch up, as subsequent education opportunities in life tend to reinforce early education outcomes.

One of the comments made frequently in discussions about social diversity in the classroom is that schools cannot solve the problems of society. But what else should we expect from schools than to address the challenges confronting their society? And what could be more important than supporting those teachers and schools working in the most difficult circumstances, and those students with the greatest needs? It seems clear that society increasingly looks to schools to remedy social problems that were, in the past, addressed by others. The task for public policy is to help schools meet those demands.

For a start, many education systems can do better in aligning resources with needs. When it comes to material resources, much progress has been achieved; but attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms remains difficult in most countries. It is not as simple as paying teachers who work in disadvantaged schools more; it requires holistic approaches in which teachers feel supported in their professional and personal life when they take on additional challenges, and when they know that additional effort will be valued and publicly recognised.

It is difficult for teachers to allocate scarce additional time and resources to the children with the greatest needs. People who laud the value of diversity in classrooms are often talking about the classes other people’s children attend. It is generally difficult to convince socio-economically advantaged parents whose children go to school with other privileged children that everyone is better off when classes are socially diverse. Policy makers, too, find it hard to allocate resources where the challenges are greatest and where those resources can have the biggest impact, often because poor children usually don’t have someone lobbying for them.

But equity is only partly about socio-economic status and the need to spend more resources on the children with the greatest needs. Equally important is the realisation that different individuals learn differently and have different needs. The struggle of the 20th century was about the right to be equal. The struggle in the 21st century will be about the right to be different.

How policy can help create a more equitable system

How we treat the most vulnerable students and citizens shows who we are as a society. PISA data show that one of the most important factors that can affect a student’s performance is the socio-economic background of the other students in the class. The implication is that one of the most important resources to be allocated to schools and classrooms is the students themselves. Germany’s failure to join the other northern European nations in moving away from a tripartite organisation of secondary schools, based on social class, in the years leading up to and just following the Second World War made it difficult for that country to provide the quality of education to lower-income, and particularly immigrant, students that they needed to have a decent chance in life.

The subsequent decision in some of Germany’s states to change from three education streams to two has contributed to the improvement in equity in recent years. Along the same lines, Poland realised a substantial reduction in the share of poorly performing students by converting a secondary school system that was primarily organised by social class into one in which all classes of students are enrolled in comprehensive schools.

Sweden calculates the funding that it sends to each school based on a formula intended to make sure that every school has what it takes to implement the country’s demanding curriculum. According to this formula, isolated communities above the Arctic Circle get more for the education of their students per capita than Stockholm does. This is because there are fewer students in rural high schools than in the city who will take a certain course – say, Physics – so classes will be smaller; but all students, no matter where they live, are entitled to be taught Physics because Physics is a required course in the curriculum. Along the same lines, Swedish schools with a greater share of immigrant students receive more resources than schools with fewer immigrants.

The Pupil Premium in England provides schools with additional resources for each disadvantaged student. England gives schools wide discretion in how to use the Pupil Premium, essentially, schools can allocate these resources as they see fit, as long as they can point to and explain the evidence base for their decisions and account for their decisions to the public. That means they can enhance the instructional system, but they can also integrate a wider range of social services into the school environment that are critical for supporting disadvantaged students.

Shanghai manages to attain both high scores in PISA and low variations in student performance across the schools in the province. This has not come about by chance but by determined efforts to convert weaker schools into stronger schools. These efforts include systematically upgrading the infrastructure of all schools to similar levels; establishing a system of financial transfer payments to schools serving disadvantaged students; and establishing career structures that incentivise high-performing teachers to teach in disadvantaged schools. It also involves pairing high-performing districts and schools with low-performing districts and schools, so that the authorities in each can exchange and discuss their development plans with each other, and institutes for teachers’ professional development can share their curricula, teaching materials and good practices.

The state of Ceará in Brazil gives its highest-performing schools a significant reward in additional financial resources that allows them to hire more specialised teachers and experts. However, they cannot use these additional resources in their own school; they are required to allocate them to the schools that struggle most. So everyone wins: the high-performing schools gained additional prestige and an expanded team, the low-performing schools benefitted from the expertise of high-performing schools – which might have been more valuable to them than additional money.

These examples show that universal high-quality education is an attainable goal, that it is within our means to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one, and that our task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable.



PISA, OECD, 2018


Policies and practices aimed at providing more equal education opportunities for all children can be implemented at the classroom, school and education-system levels. Such policies may have more success if they are implemented as early as possible, and if they dismantle the extensive barriers to learning that disadvantaged students face, focus on students’ attitudes, and social and emotional well-being, and are coupled with education and social programmes that improve students’ environments outside of school. This section offers a series of general policy recommendations, based on the results from this report, that countries can use to identify the most appropriate tools for improving equity in education and social mobility in their own specific contexts.

1. Support disadvantaged children, adolescents and young adults
in their education

“[…] Each country needs to understand at what age inequity begins to affect individuals and how it deepens over a lifetime. This might require developing age-appropriate national assessments and conducting longitudinal studies. Countries need to consider creating and reinforcing policies and programmes that support disadvantaged students at the stages in which inequity is most prevalent, and during the periods immediately before these inequities arise. Such policies can help prevent inequities from developing and limit those that may have already taken root.”

2. Provide quality early-education programmes to disadvantaged children

“A finding common across countries is that inequity in education is already observed by age 10; this leads to the second policy implication of the report: the importance of early intervention. Early childhood education and care are critical vehicles for providing more equitable learning environments early on. […] In addition, quality early childhood education helps children acquire essential social and emotional skills. Yet in many countries, poor and minority families are less likely to enrol their children in such programmes. Countries should promote greater access to these programmes, particularly among disadvantaged families. […]”

3. Set ambitious goals and monitor the progress of disadvantaged students

“Countries could set progressive benchmarking points to monitor their progress in equity in education. For example, when it comes to improving the academic performance of disadvantaged students, countries might want to distinguish between benchmarks based on national criteria, such as reaching a certain share of disadvantaged students who achieve excellence by national standards (i.e. national resilience), and benchmarks based on international or absolute criteria, such as reaching a certain share of disadvantaged students who achieve proficiency Level 3 in PISA in science, reading and mathematics (i.e. core-skills resilience). […]”

4. Develop teachers’ capacity to detect student needs and manage
diverse classrooms

“Changing practices inside the classroom can help reduce cognitive and socio-emotional gaps related to socio-economic status. By providing schools with services such as specialised teacher support and training, teachers may be better equipped with the skills to identify and address learning difficulties, develop more customised and effective teaching methods, and foster self-esteem and positive attitudes among disadvantaged students. […]
In addition, schools that provide guidance and career counselling to students may be able to complement efforts in the classroom, and help students assess their progress and think strategically about goals and aspirations. […]”

5. Target additional resources towards disadvantaged students and schools

“[…] It is essential that disadvantaged students in all schools have the resources they needed to succeed. This means that funding must be targeted in a way that equalises opportunities for learning and achievement. Schools with larger shares of disadvantaged students therefore will require additional investments in human and material resources, such as improvements to school infrastructure, teacher training and support, language-development programmes for minority students, tutoring and homework-assistance services, extracurricular activities, and customised instructional programmes to address the learning challenges particular to disadvantaged and minority students. Equally important, schools with large shares of disadvantaged students must ensure that the supply of available resources is sufficient to meet the demand of all students. Disadvantaged students, even those in more advantaged schools, must be informed of and encouraged to use these services. […]”

6. Reduce the concentration of disadvantaged students in particular schools

“Another way to address double disadvantage is to reduce the number of students suffering from it by reducing the concentration of disadvantaged students in particular schools.
Residential segregation may explain why large groups of disadvantaged students are found in the same schools. However, policies used to assign students to schools can provide opportunities to improve the level of social diversity in schools. This can happen by reshaping school catchment areas or school districts to include neighbourhoods with different social characteristics. However, these policies may, in turn, reinforce residential segregation in the long run. […]”

7. Foster student well-being

“The findings reveal that student expectations are a key factor in their future success. There are significant disparities in expectations for future education and careers between 15-year-old advantaged and disadvantaged students, and these gaps help to explain differences in educational and occupational attainment among young adults, independent of performance in PISA. Similar relationships are observed for a range of socio-emotional outcomes, including student self-efficacy, sense of belonging at school, and attitudes towards schooling. Therefore, policies aimed at promoting equity in education and educational mobility need to be multi-pronged. They need to ensure that students are given adequate educational resources that are allocated fairly at the school level, and also supply teachers with the tools to help nurture positive attitudes and aspirations among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. […]”

8. Create a climate that favours learning and well-being

“While teachers can help promote well-being in their classrooms, all school actors – staff and students – should work together to prioritise well-being in schools. Schools can give students more opportunities to engage in such efforts by encouraging students to voice their opinions on the subject, offering leadership roles through student organisations and governments, and allowing for more student-led approaches to learning and decision making. The school community can collaborate to implement targeted programmes and interventions, develop supportive policies, and design strategic approaches to address specific behaviours, including bullying and violence, and other anti-social behaviours, and psychological states, including low self-esteem, depression and grief. […]”

9. Encourage parent-teacher communication and parental engagement

“For in-class methods to succeed, schools and teachers need to improve communication with parents in the most disadvantaged homes and help develop home environments that are more conducive to learning. Teachers can use various forms of communication to keep parents up to date on student progress and to collaboratively address any difficulties the student might be having at school. Parent-teacher communication can also provide a platform for discussing with parents the various ways they can become more involved in their child’s studies. […]”

Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD


OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en.

OECD (2018), Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264073234-en.

OECD (2016), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264266490-en.

OECD (2015), In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264235120-en.  

UNESCO (2015), Incheon Declaration. Education 2030: Towards Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Lifelong Learning for All, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002338/233813m.pdf (accessed on 05 April 2018).




World Bank (2018), World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, http://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2018 (accessed on 22 June 2018).


Schools play an important role in addressing the challenges of society and greater equity is one of the priorities schools should pursue, given that different socioeconomic backgrounds lead to differences in academic performance and great disparities in terms of opportunities later in life. What can schools and school systems do? Allocating more financial and material resources on students with the strongest needs is only part of the answer. Another key factor to consider is how to attract the best teachers to teach in the most vulnerable schools, and the way students themselves are allocated in schools can affect their future outcomes. Countries such as Poland, China, Sweden and Brazil provide some interesting examples of policies that lead to greater equity and the report “Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility”, published by the OCDE in 2018, puts forward other recommendations to consider, such as adequate teacher training and focus on well-being.

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