Youth in the Education Sustainable Development Goal

SDG 4 and its associated targets set an ambitious agenda that encompasses access, participation, quality and equity in education. The analysis below builds on selected SDG 4 indicators in order to investigate equity in access to education and in learning outcomes.

The SDG 4 agenda reaffirms the importance of children’s participation in ECEC, by dedicating an entire target (4.2) to “ensuring that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education”. Indicator 4.2.2, in particular, investigates the participation rate in organised learning one year before the official starting age. As shown in Figure 1, on average across OECD countries, about 95% of boys and girls are enrolled in ECEC one year before the official primary school entry age. There is, however, significant cross-country variation, with values ranging from less than 80% in Saudi Arabia and Turkey to at least 99% for both genders in Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Ensuring equitable access to ECEC can be crucial in promoting equity, as children’s early experiences can strongly influence future life outcomes such as education, employment, health, citizenship and life satisfaction (OECD, 2018[3]). As shown in Figure 1, in all countries with available data, enrolment rates in ECEC are similar for boys and girls, with a difference of at most 3 percentage points across genders. In contrast, ensuring equity in access to ECEC by socio-economic background remains a challenge in many countries. For instance, evidence has shown that enrolment in ECEC tends to be significantly lower for children whose mother has not attained tertiary education than for others (OECD, 2018[4]). In addition, participation rates in ECEC tend to be lower for children from low-income households than for those from high-income households (OECD, 2020[5]). Many factors may contribute to the observed lower enrolment rates for low-income children. In addition to costs and affordability issues, factors such as the availaility of childcare, cultural norms, parents’ labour market prospects and, in some countries, the availability of lengthy homecare allowance, may play an important role (OECD, 2016[6]; Pavolini and Van Lancker, 2018[7]).

One way the SDG agenda monitors participation in education is through out-of-school rates, which are defined as the percentage of children in the official age range for a given level of education who are not enrolled in school (SDG Indicator 4.1.4). As shown in Figure 2, on average across OECD countries, there is a 7% upper secondary out-of-school rate. While the majority of countries had managed to limit the proportion of out-of-school youth (less than 5%) in 2019, about one-quarter of OECD and partner countries still had a large proportion of out-of-school youth (over 10%). Mexico exhibits the highest out-of-school rates among all OECD and partner countries, with over 25% of upper secondary school-aged youth not enrolled.

In terms of gender parity, upper secondary out-of-school rates tend to be similar for men and women. The difference between young women and men in out-of-school rates remains at or below 3 percentage points in almost all countries, except in Mexico, where the out-of-school rate is 4 percentage points higher among men (SDG database).

As shown in Figure 2, some countries experienced a significant decrease in out-of-school rates at upper secondary level between 2005 and 2019. This is the case in the Russian Federation (decrease by 19 percentage points), Mexico (17 percentage points), Portugal (17 percentage points), New Zealand (11 percentage points) and Spain (10 percentage points). These large decreases may reflect continuous policy efforts to retain students of upper secondary education age in school (OECD, 2019[8]). This progress, however, may be threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in widespread school closures and the risk that many youth – especially the most disadvantaged – may not return to school when they reopen. Government initiatives to tackle this issue have included implementing school-based mechanisms to track vulnerable student groups not returning to school and providing financial incentives such as cash, food or transport, or waived school fees for vulnerable students to return to school. The latter, for instance, was implemented in Costa Rica, Estonia, Poland, Portugal, Hungary, Spain and Turkey (OECD, 2021[2]).

Increasing upper secondary attainment requires ensuring students can both access programmes and complete them. In every country with available data (both true and cross cohort), women are more likely than men to complete upper secondary education, both within the theoretical duration and two years after. On average across countries and economies with true cohort data, 76% of women graduated from upper secondary education within the theoretical duration of the programme, compared to only 68% of men (Indicator B3 in OECD (2020[9])).

There can also be a significant gap in upper secondary completion rates, depending on students’ immigrant status. As shown in Indicator B3, completion rates are lower for first- and second-generation immigrants than for non-immigrants in most countries with available data (Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Sweden and the United States). The only exception is Iceland, where upper secondary completion rates for first-generation immigrants who arrived at or before the age of 6 (79%) are higher than those for non-immigrants (75%). As for socio-economic background, students from likely disadvantaged backgrounds (proxied by parental education) tend to be over-represented in vocational programmes, which may raise equity concerns knowing that completion rates tend to be lower in vocational than in general programmes (Indicator B3).

Education policy aims not only to provide access to all levels of education, but also to ensure that all students, regardless of their gender, socio-economic background or immigrant status, can gain the necessary skills to guide them through life. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides valuable insights about students’ performance at the age of 15. As such, it is used to monitor SDG Indicator 4.1.1, which measures the “Proportion of children and young people at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level (i.e. level 2 or above in the PISA context) in reading and mathematics” in almost 90 countries (including the data from PISA for Development).

Figure 3 displays parity indices for Indicator 4.1.1 (see Methodology section for methodology), measured along gender, socio-economic background and immigrant status (see Definitions section). Among 15-year-olds, girls outperform boys in reading in all countries and economies with available data. This pattern is particularly visible in Brazil, Greece, Indonesia, Israel and Saudi Arabia, where the percentage of students reaching PISA level 2 is at least 20% higher for girls than for boys.

Students’ reading performance also varies significantly by socio-economic background. On average across OECD countries, the percentage of students achieving PISA level 2 is around 30% lower for students from the bottom quartile of the PISA economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) index than for students from the top quartile. Moreover, all countries with available data exhibit some level of performance gap, although the extent of disparities varies across countries (with a gap ranging from 15% or less in Canada, Estonia and Finland to at least 50% in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia) (Figure 3).

Finally, students’ reading performance also tends to be strongly influenced by their immigrant status. On average across OECD countries, the percentage of students reaching PISA level 2 in reading is about 20% lower for students with an immigrant background than for non-immigrants. The disparity in favour of non-immigrants is particularly visible in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Mexico, where the share of students reaching PISA level 2 is at least 45% lower for immigrants than for non-immigrants. In contrast, in Argentina, Australia, Hungary, Turkey and Saudi Arabia students with an immigrant background score at least as well as non-immigrants. These cross-country differences may reflect, in part, differences in immigrant students’ socio-economic status (OECD, 2019[10]).

The observed disparities in reading achievement by gender, socio-economic background and immigrant status raise important equity concerns, as they may have long-term consequences for boys’ and girls’ academic and professional lives (OECD, 2019[10]).

Demographic changes and large-scale migration have raised challenges for education systems, as teachers work to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. As shown in the previous section, there are important equity concerns, as students’ learning outcomes tend to vary significantly depending on their immigrant status.

Data from the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) provide valuable insights about teachers’ feeling of preparedness to teach in a diverse classroom. On average across OECD countries participating in TALIS, 15% of lower secondary teachers report needing training about “teaching in a multicultural or multilingual setting” and 11% about “communicating with people from different cultures or countries”. There is, however, significant cross-country variation. England (United Kingdom) and the Netherlands exhibit the lowest reported need for these types of training, at 5% of teachers or less. In contrast, in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, this percentage reaches at least 30% for both types of training (OECD, 2019[13]). Several factors may explain the high reported need for training in Latin American countries. For instance, a recent influx of migrants into the region has contributed to an increase in cultural diversity among students (OECD, 2015[14]). Moreover, in recent decades, a number of programmes have been implemented to build more diverse classrooms, which translated into a higher need for teacher training about teaching students from diverse backgrounds (OECD, 2016[15]; 2018[16]; Santiago et al., 2017[17]).

Education systems can play an important role in preparing teachers to work in a diverse classroom, notably by ensuring the availability of targeted training opportunities. The SDG agenda investigates teachers’ participation in continuous professional development through SDG Indicator 4.c.7, which measures the percentage of teachers who received in-service training in the last 12 months by type of training. Data from TALIS can help monitor this measure. As shown in Figure 4, on average across OECD countries, 94% of teachers report having participated in continuous professional development activities over the past 12 months. However, only around 20% of teachers reported having participated in training about “teaching in a multicultural or multilingual setting” and about “communicating with people from different cultures”.

There is significant cross-country variation in teachers’ participation in training about diversity in the classroom. The lowest shares of teachers participating in continuous professional development activities about “teaching in a multicultural or multilingual setting” are found in France and the Netherlands (below 10%). In contrast, in Alberta (Canada), New Zealand and the United States, which have a long tradition of tackling instruction in diverse settings, over 40% of teachers participate in this type of training (OECD, 2015[14]) (Figure 4).

The relationship between the reported participation in training and the need for training allows for further insights. The Netherlands, for instance, exhibits both low levels of need (below 5%) and participation (below 10%) in continuous professional development about “teaching in a multicultural or multilingual setting”. This may reflect the fact that teachers already feel sufficiently prepared to teach in a diverse environment. As for the three OECD countries and economies with the highest participation rates in training about diversity (Alberta [Canada], New Zealand and the United States), they exhibit a low reported need for this type of training (less than 10% of teachers). One explanation may be that, in these countries, participation in training about diversity effectively prepares teachers to work in a diverse classroom, leading to lower self-reported needs for this type of training (OECD, 2019[13]). Finally, countries such as Brazil and Colombia exhibit both high reported needs for training about “teaching in a multicultural or multilingual setting” (over 43%) and high reported participation in this type of training (over 26%). This may reflect teachers’ desire for further development, even after participating in training on that topic (OECD, 2019[13]).

All indicators presented in this chapter follow the agreed SDG methodology, including for recommended data sources, and may differ in some cases from other indicators presented in Education at a Glance. Please see Annex 3 for country-specific notes (


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