This report synthesises five years of analytical research conducted under the OECD’s Social Outcomes of Learning (SOL) project. The first phase of the project developed a conceptual framework for describing how learning relates to social outcomes. The second phase focused on evaluating empirical evidence in order to identify the pathways through which education is most likely to help improve social outcomes.
The policy climate surrounding issues of development and prosperity has gradually shifted during the last decade. There is growing interest in looking beyond the traditional economic measures of success, such as income, employment and gross domestic product (GDP), towards non-economic facets of well-being and social progress, such as health, civic engagement and happiness. Recent prominent initiatives include the French government’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi) and the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health (chaired by Michael Marmot).
Today’s global policy climate recognises the importance of better addressing non-economic dimensions of well-being and social progress such as health, social engagement, political interest and crime. It is well known that education plays an important role in shaping these indicators of social progress. However, little is understood about the causal effects, the causal pathways, the role of contexts, and the relative impacts of different educational interventions on social outcomes. This limited knowledge base prevents policy makers from taking concrete actions to improve the well-being of nations. This report aims to address the challenges for assessing the social outcomes of learning by providing a synthesis of the existing evidence, original data analyses and policy discussions.
The empirical framework
This chapter presents an empirical framework that has guided researchers who evaluate the performance of education in fostering the progress of societies. It includes methods that shed light on the features of education systems that have been successful in promoting health and social cohesion. In doing so, it describes well-established methodologies to evaluate whether certain indicators of the education system (e.g. years of education completed, qualifications attained and specific educational interventions received) exhibit causal effects on health and social cohesion. It also describes methodologies for evaluating the pathways through which education has an effect on health and social cohesion. The framework, which helps better interpret and evaluate the emerging literature on the social outcomes of learning, underlies the analyses presented in subsequent chapters.
Education and civic and social engagement
OECD countries have become increasingly interested in their citizens’ civic and social engagement, not only because of its intrinsic value but also because of the potential benefits they bring to the society. Can education play a role in raising civic and social engagement? On the one hand, the available causal evidence suggests that secondary schools in the United States play a role in fostering political engagement, although in Europe the jury is still out. On the other hand, the evidence sheds little light on the potentially important role of higher education in promoting civic engagement, interpersonal trust and tolerance. The lack of robust causal evidence on the net effects of education may suggest that certain features of education matter more than others.
Education and health
In spite of rapid increases in life expectancy, OECD countries remain concerned about the deterioration in lifestyle habits and the sharp rise in chronic health problems. Can education play a role in addressing these health challenges? The literature suggests that education can help improve health by raising cognitive and socio-emotional skills and developing health related habits and attitudes. There is significant scope for education to improve children’s health, but can it fulfil this role in isolation? Evidence suggests that essential cognitive and socio-emotional skills can be most effectively developed in the family environment during early childhood. With a strong start, children are better able to capitalise on their school experience. Community environment can also complement the efforts made in school and the family. To ensure the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of education’s contribution to health, it is critical for schools to focus on enhancing what works, addressing what does not, and ensuring that the family and community environments are in harmony with school initiatives. Policy makers can support this by promoting policy coherence across sectors and stages of education.
Improving health through cost-effective educational interventions
This chapter presents an assessment of the cost-effectiveness of educational interventions – school-based, work-based and mass media – in reducing obesity-related disabilities. Results indicate that educational interventions via the mass media are the most cost-effective in the short run. In the long run, however, all interventions become cost-effective, especially in comparison to other health-related interventions such as physician counselling and food advertisement regulations.
Conclusion: policy messages and future agenda
This chapter presents policy messages derived from this report. Education is not a silver bullet. However, it has a significant potential to promote health and social cohesion by fostering cognitive, social and emotional skills as well as positive attitudes, habits and norms that can help trigger healthy lifestyles and active citizenship. Promoting these competencies is most likely to be fruitful when home and community environments are in line with education-based efforts. This calls for ensuring policy coherence across sectors and stages of education. Early childhood education and care offers particular examples of how integrated and co-ordinated actions can be effectively made and extended to other levels of education. The challenge is no doubt immense, but the returns to well-being and social progress from improving education can be significant.
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