Responsible Employer

Social mobility is at risk

Interview with Dirk Van Damme

The world has changed and the world of education will have to change too in order to adapt to the pace and habits of modern life. Education is based far too much on models that were created thirty or forty years ago. A change of direction is required otherwise there is a risk that education may lose its key role as an engine to guarantee equal opportunities, to correct social imbalances from the outset and to encourage social mobility.

Dirk Van Damme, head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division (IMEP) at the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) works on these topics every day. The structure that directs, maps and measures changes, produces research and provides interpretations in order to invite reform of the aspects of education that are not functioning.


The impact that education has on social mobility seems less than it was a decade ago. Is this really the case?

There is widespread concern about this issue, even though the evidence of the process is not totally clear. Much depends also on the viewpoint from which the situation is observed. In general, today it is very likely that a young person will have better qualifications than his or her parents. However, that does not necessarily translate into greater social mobility. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish between absolute and relative social mobility. The former has increased notably in the populations of OECD countries. The conditions of life and work of many people have improved compared with that of their parents or grandparents. The position in the social pyramid, however, does not necessarily result as being any different and this is relative mobility: on this front, we can say that in many countries we’re seeing a phase of stagnation.


What is this due to?

First of all I’d like to say that if a person’s level of education is low, the chances of that individual having a good job and a better life are significantly reduced. We could say that having at least a secondary school diploma is a sort of mechanism of social insurance. The data in our possession indicates a decline in the salary level and employment for those without qualifications. At the same time, a university degree offers better chances of having a job, salary and good health. But it is by no means automatic that having such a qualification serves as an entrance ticket to enjoy status and privileges that in the past were the realm of only a small portion of the population. This is the case also because there are more graduates now and there is more competition.

In spite of the fact that personally I view things with an optimistic approach, and consider it positive that the level of education has increased over the years, I have observed that relative social mobility is stagnating. The social structures have changed compared with thirty or forty years ago and certainly the scenario has seen social disparity increase in many countries. In this period, the richest 1% of the population have become even better off, while the distribution of wealth to lower levels does not occur as it should: all of this impacts on the capacity of schools, and the education system as a whole, to compensate these imbalances.


Does the effectiveness of schools, in terms of encouraging the social elevator, depend also on a failure to adapt to the times were living in?

There are drastic changes on a demographic level, and in the structure of families, that are profoundly modifying the world in which children are growing up. I believe that education must evolve as a consequence, but this is not yet occurring. Schools are still restricted by ideas based on a situation that is now out of date: there is a discrepancy between these ideas and reality. For this reason, we have launched the project “21st Century Children”. It aims to help better comprehend the way in which the world has changed for children compared with previous decades, and to understand if educational models are obsolete. I would like to point out that we do not yet have the answers and that our task is only to verify them.


Among the things that have changed is the technology: its presence in everyday life has reached unprecedented levels. Is technology a resource for schools? Can it improve processes of learning and teaching?

At the OECD, we don’t work on opinions but facts. Having said that, I believe that in spite of the significant investment made to introduce technology into schools, it has not yet been possible to exploit the benefits that this technology can offer. What has occurred in other sectors, such as health, has not taken place in education. A reason for this is that too often the investment is made on hardware: bringing computers to schools does not necessarily mean improving the learning processes. We can see this in the data relating to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). The relationship between the number of computers in a school and the pupils’ marks is not directly proportional. It can even have a negative impact. Therefore, it is necessary to focus attention on how the technology can improve the learning process rather than how much technology there is. It is necessary, moreover, to work on the quality and the capacity of teachers to use these technological instruments. This means putting greater emphasis on software.


Has the family also changed?

The number of children that go to school without having had a decent breakfast, or without the right clothes, has grown in recent years. This does not depend only on poverty. Sometimes pupils don’t have the backing of a family structure capable of guaranteeing the basics. Single parent families, children with parents that have separated or families with children from pervious relationships are no longer the exception. These families are more at risk from poverty. They might struggle to produce a decent income, to provide time for the family and to be responsible for their children. In schools, there are an increasing number of such cases. Some countries are considering distributing guidelines for families or support systems to improve families’ capacities to manage responsibility and their obligations to their children.


In a changing world does the social escalator depend also on what is learnt outside of school or university?

Of course. School and university are each just single parts of the pathway of growing up and acquiring knowledge. Our interest in the theme of permanent learning, a theme that is increasingly manifest, is growing. Given that the value of a degree is not what it was, in the sense that it does not automatically guarantee a good career and a series of social standards, it is necessary to concentrate on offering people equal opportunities in order that they may improve themselves over the course of their entire lifetimes.  And that should be developed, taking into account the fact that inequality afflicts permanent learning in a greater way compared with the impact that it has on the world of schooling.