Chapter B: Access to Education, Participation and Progress – Summary B3

B3 Who is expected to graduate from upper secondary education?

Gender profile of upper secondary graduates

An upper secondary qualification is generally the minimum requirement to integrate the labor market and necessary for continuing to further education. Young people who did not have the opportunity to finish high school face challenges in the labour market, including worse employment prospects. Moreover, men and women do not make similar choices, which explains their offers for higher education and their job opportunities. An additional indicator that can explain the non-completion of upper secondary programme is the socioeconomic background of students. Therefore, the analysis of these choices and their outcomes is very important to guaranteeing inclusive educational opportunities and defining policies that address inequalities.


Upper secondary graduation, by programme orientation

Vocational pathways are important components of upper secondary education in many OECD countries, and key opportunities for students to gain practical work experience for their future careers. Three years ago, on average across OECD countries, 38% of upper secondary graduates obtained a vocational qualification, ranging from 6% in Canada to 76% in Austria.

In general, men tend to be more interested by a vocational pathway than women (Education at a Glance Database). On average across OECD countries, in 2019, women enrolled in upper secondary graduates represented 55%, and 45% in vocational programmes, which explains the lower number of men enrolled in higher education programmes.

Upper secondary vocational graduation, by field of study

The choice of field of study when aiming for vocational education is intrinsically connected to employment outcomes and career choices. Nonetheless, choices of field of study differ by gender. Social perceptions of the role of men and women can explain the choice of careers, as well as natural inclination and preferences. A significant share of students in upper secondary vocational education graduated from engineering, manufacturing, and construction programmes in 2019, followed by business, administration and law (17%); services (17%); and health and welfare (12%).

Moreover, women are more inclined to choose subjects in the field of business, administration, and law as well as health and welfare. On the other hand, men are more interested by studying engineering as well as information, communication, and technology, which are in great demand in the labour market in OECD countries. Indeed, these differences can be explained through cultural and traditional perceptions of the role of women and men in particular career pathways. Some studies have demonstrated that these gender differences in the choice of field of study are reflected in the career expectations of 15-year-olds: on average across OECD countries, only 14% of the girls who were top performers in science or mathematics aimed to pursue a career in science or engineering, compared with 26% of the top-performing boys. During the global pandemic, most of the health-care workforce in the frontline were females (Gabster et al., 2020). The shortages of nurses across OECD economies have shed light on the importance for governments to ensure that more men apply in this field in order to resolve the resource issue in the health sector and tackle an ignored gender gap.

Gender profile of post-secondary non-tertiary graduates

Another category of post-secondary non-tertiary programmes (ISCED level 4) are offered in OECD countries. These programmes are between upper secondary and post-secondary education and may be considered either upper secondary or post-secondary programmes, depending on the education system of the respective country. However, these types of programmes are not significantly higher than upper secondary qualification, since they only expand the knowledge of students who have graduated with upper secondary qualifications. Only vocationally oriented, post-secondary non-tertiary programmes are generally less prominent in the educational landscape in comparison to other levels of education. In 2019, post-secondary non-tertiary education was constituted by only 1% of 15- to 19-year-olds enrollment rate.


Post-secondary non-tertiary graduation, by programme orientation

On average across OECD countries, approximately 95% of post-secondary non-tertiary first-time graduates have graduated from vocational programmes. The level of professionalism after graduating from these educational programmes is quite high since graduates are expected to directly integrate in the labour market.


Post-secondary non-tertiary graduation, by field of study

On average across OECD countries, 23% of post-secondary non-tertiary graduates in vocational programmes specialised in health and welfare; 21% in engineering, manufacturing and construction; and 18% in both business, administration and law and services. On average across the latter, women represent 54% of post-secondary non-tertiary vocational graduates.

However, this is not the case in all countries. It ranges from 23% in Luxembourg to 76% in Poland. Two factors can explain these variations: 1) women have a higher graduation rate in upper secondary vocational education than men so they are more likely to continue their studies in post-secondary education and, 2) the high number of female students represented in certain broad fields of study such as health and social welfare, and business, administration and law – fields which are very frequent in short-cycle tertiary vocational education at tertiary level, but especially in post-secondary non-tertiary education (OECD, 2020[2]). Furthermore, in most countries with available data, female students represent more than half of post-secondary non-tertiary graduates from vocational programmes.


First-time graduation rates

Upper secondary education is internationally considered as the minimum level of qualification for successful integration into the labor market and almost mandatory to pursue further education. The consequences of failing this level of education on time can be damaging to both individuals and society. In addition, graduate rates can be considered as a key indicator of whether governments have invested enough to increase the number of students graduating from upper secondary education. Therefore, the contrast in graduation rates among countries reflect the difference of educational systems and programmes available as well as current social norms and economic performance. 80% of adults before the age 25 should enjoy a first-time graduation from upper secondary education, if current graduation patterns continue on average across OECD countries.

Post-secondary non-tertiary graduation rates

First-time graduation rates from post-secondary non-tertiary education are generally lower than those from upper-secondary programmes. On average, 6% of today’s young adults in OECD countries will finish post-secondary non-tertiary programmes before they turn 30 if current graduation patterns continue.



Summarized by Faical Al Azib from OECD, Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators – Indicator B1; B2; B3. Access to Education, Participation and Progress:

Chapter B: Access to Education, Participation and Progress – Summary B2

B2 How do early childhood education systems differ around the world?

Enrolment of children under age 3

It is important for children to have access to high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) for their development and well-being. The age at which children are likely to begin attending school can vary depending on certain factors such as, the availability and length of parental leave, as well as the typical starting age for ECEC. Moreover, the role of women in the society and, more specifically, in the labor market can be an additional indicator for the starting attendance of children into school.

On average across OECD countries, a significant increase in the enrolment of young children under the age of 3 has occurred in most OECD countries since 2005. However, not all countries have had the same pace. Some of them have invested more than others, which resulted in a drastic expansion of ECEC for children under age 3 in recent years. For example, Korea had the largest expansion between 2015 and 2019, with an increase of 13 percentage points in the enrolment of children under 3.

This expansion of ECEC, especially in Europe, can be explained through the objectives set by the European Union (EU) at its Barcelona 2002 meeting to supply subsidised full-day places for one-third of children under the age of 3 by 2010. This expansion can also be explained through the increase in women’s participation in the labour market, particularly for mothers with children under three. The data shed light on this correlation, by demonstrating the countries with higher enrolment rates of children under 3 in 2019 are those that are witnessing the highest employment rates of mothers (Table B2.1 in OECD (2018)).

Unfortunately, the affordability and access to ECEC for very young children is still perceived as a programme reserved for certain social classes. Indeed, despite government efforts to increase the affordability and accessibility of such early childhood development services, it is still too dependent on private sources of funding. Data from the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) Survey highlight that on average across European OECD countries, 0- to 2-year-olds in low-income households were one-third less likely to participate in ECEC. The difference between low-income and high-income households can vary from one country to another. For example, France and Ireland have approximately 40 percentage points of difference between families from the two social classes, whereas in Denmark there is a high participation rate of young children in ECEC regardless of parent’s income level (OECD, 2020).

Enrolment of children from age 3 to 5

Studies have revealed that an early start to a quality education can help children’s development and can be positive to prepare them for school. Therefore, this matter has been the focus of policy reform for a decade. In the past, most OECD countries had an educational system that only started from primary school. With time, these countries have realised the importance of developing ECEC for younger children.

An interesting phenomenon is the high rates enrolment of 3- to 5-year-old children in ECEC, with 87% on average across OECD countries, even though ECEC programmes are not compulsory in all countries. However, lower enrolment in ECEC can be the result of insufficient places available, lack of awareness by parents of the importance of ECEC or limited public coverage of early learning settings (OECD, 2017).

For the last ten years, enrolment of 3- to 5-year-olds in education has been developing as the fruit of the extension of compulsory education to younger children, the increase of governmental subsidies towards ECEC for some ages and targeted population groups, and universal provision for older children. Across OECD countries and its partners, there was an increase of 2 percentage points on average enrolment of 3- to 5-year-olds in pre-primary and primary schools, between 2015-2019.

Up until today, there is an ongoing debate about the appropriate age at which children should transition to primary education across most OECD countries. Indeed, ECEC programmes are usually designed to develop the cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional skills needed to participate in school and society. On the other hand, primary education aims to give pupils and a sound basic education in reading, writing and mathematics, along with preliminary understanding of other subjects (OECD/ Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015). Moreover, some studies state that children below the age of primary school should be free for their personal development, before focusing in a more academically oriented programme (OECD, 2017).

Regional variation in the enrolment of 3- to 5-year-olds 

The foundations of sustainable learning for all children and supporting the main educational and social needs of families, are fair access to quality ECEC. However, the equitable access to quality ECEC is hindered depending on the geographical location, especial in rural regions where there are undeveloped public transportation infrastructures, and commuting can prove exhausting. Therefore, the percentage rate of participation in ECEC among 3- to 5-year-olds at national level can be associated with the regional socioeconomic situation. Furthermore, the ratio of children to teaching staff is a key indicator of the resources allocated to education. On average across OECD countries, every teacher is responsible of a class of 15 students in pre-primary education. Since 2015, the number of children per teaching staff at pre-primary level decreased across most OECD and partner countries. And this is an indicator that most countries are investing more resources to develop a closer interaction between the teacher and his/her students. In addition, it is also an indicator of stronger growth in the number of teachers compared to the number of children enrolled in pre-primary education.

Child-staff ratios 

It is proven that inspiring environments and high-quality pedagogy are stimulated by well qualified practitioners, and that closer child-staff interactions facilitate better learning outcomes. Therefore, smaller numbers of students per class, allow professors to focus more on the needs of individual children and reduce the amount of class time spent addressing class disruptions (OECD, 2020).

Financing early childhood education and care

Sustainable public subsidies to support the development of ECEC programmes are essential. In fact, appropriate funding aids in the recruitment of qualified trained staff, who will in turn support the growth of ECEC programmes. Additionally, investment in infrastructure would support the development of child-centered environments for well-being and learning. In sum, insufficiently subsidised ECEC can influence the ability of some parents from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds to enroll their children in these programmes.

Expenditure per child

In pre-primary education, annual expenditure for both public and private settings is approximately USD 9300 per child on average in OECD countries in 2018. Additionally, spending on ECEC can be studied as an expenditure relative to a country’s wealth. Indeed, expenditure on all ECEC settings accounted in 2018 for an average of 0.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) across OECD countries, of which two-thirds was allocated to preprimary education. The expenditures can vary due to the differences of enrolment rates, legal entitlements, and the intensity of participation, as well as the different starting ages for primary education.

Public and private provision and funding of early childhood education and care 

The type of ECEC programmes and its expansion are the reflection of parent’s needs and expectations regarding accessibility, cost, programme, staff quality, and accountability. Usually, when these important conditions are not met by public institutions, some parents may be more interested to enroll their children into the private ones (Shin, Jung and Park, 2009).

Private institutions can be categorised as independent and government dependent. Independent private institutions are owned by a non-governmental organisation or by a governing board not selected by a government agency and receive less than 50% of their core funding from government agencies. Government-dependent private institutions have similar governance structures, but they rely on government agencies for more than 50% of their core funding (OECD, 2018). The data showed that in most countries, the number of children enrolled in private institutions is much higher in early childhood education than at primary and secondary levels. On average across OECD countries, about half of the children in ECEC and a third of those in pre-primary education are enrolled in private institutions. Despite the increasing public funds allocated to public ECEC and pre-primary education institutions, the private ones are still better quality due to its higher funding from more diverse donors. Consequently, early childhood education is still perceived as a luxurious choice for many parents, particularly when they have children under the age of 3.



Summarized by Faical Al Azib from OECD, Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators – Indicator B1; B2; B3. Access to Education, Participation and Progress:

Chapter B: Access to Education, Participation and Progress – Summary B1

  1. B1 Who participates in education?

Compulsory education

In most OECD countries, compulsory education starts in general with primary education; by the age of 6. However, there are some varieties among OECD and partner countries. Some countries have an educational system that requires parents to enroll their children to compulsory education at an earlier age; while in other countries such as Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Lithuania, Russia, and South Africa the primary school only begins at the age of 7. Compulsory education usually ends with the completion or partial completion of upper secondary education at the age of 16 on average across OECD countries. Moreover, on average across OECD countries, full enrolment (the age range when at least 90% of the population is enrolled in education) lasts 14 years, starting from the age of 4 to the age of 17. The period of the latter lasts between 11 and 16 years in most countries and reaches 17 in Norway.

In sum, in all OECD countries, compulsory education comprises primary and lower secondary education. In most countries, there is almost universal coverage of basic education, since enrolment rates among 6- to 14-year-olds reached or exceeded 95% in all OECD countries.


Participation of 15-19 years-olds in education

With time, countries have improved their upper secondary programmes in terms of diversity. This phenomenon is the result of the increasing demand for upper secondary education and the aftermath of significant changes in curricula and labour-market needs. Indeed, curricula have developed, from general and vocational programmes to offering more comprehensive programmes that include both types of learning, leading to more academic and professional opportunities.

On average across OECD countries, 84% of the population is enrolled in education between the age of 15 and 19. The highest share of enrollments rate is in Belgium, Ireland, and Slovenia, with 94%. However, the enrolment rate did not improve in all OECD countries; for example, Germany, Hungary, and Iceland have witnessed a fall of more than 3 percentage points among 15- to 19-year-olds. Therefore, the share of students enrolled in each education level and at each stage shed lights the various educational systems and directions among countries. The highest rate of diversification in terms of academic and professional choices, is when students reach the age of 18 years old.

An additional important factor to analyse the data on ‘’Who Participates in Education?’’, is the education enrolment per gender. Indeed, studies show that female students outnumber male students in almost all age groups and at all education levels. The difference of enrolment rates can be explained through school drop-out and, indirectly, to lower school performance and grade repetition. On average across OECD countries, boys are more likely to repeat a grade in general programmes than girls and represent 61% of the repeaters in lower secondary education and 57% in upper secondary education. Consequently, women have higher enrolment rates and better performance, while repetition rates are higher among men. However, the share of repeaters varies by country with its respective educational system and by educational level.

Participation of 20- to 24-year-olds in education

A general indicator of the transition from secondary to tertiary education is the decrease of enrolment rates on average. The average enrolment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds age group across OECD countries is almost the half of 15- to 19-year-olds: only 41% of the population aged 20-24 is enrolled in education. On average across OECD countries, 37% of the female population in this group age and 29% of their male peers are enrolled in tertiary education. The gender gap in enrolment increases even more with this age group.


Participation of adults aged 25 and older in education

Among this age category, the enrolment in education becomes less common. Indeed, the OECD average enrolment rate in all levels of education reaches 16% among 25- to 29-year-olds. Moreover, the gender gap also decreases since enrolment rates are lower above age 24. Enrolment rates are only 1 percentage point higher for 25- to 29-year-old women on average. And finally, the OECD average enrolment rate for the population aged 40 to 64 is 2%.


Subnational variations in enrolment

Subnational variation in enrolment patterns emphasises on the equality of access to education across a country, as well as long term labour-market opportunities and the value of durable learning for levels beyond compulsory education or tertiary education. In addition, in more than half of the countries with data available, the difference of the enrolment rate between subnational regions is more significant than the difference of national rates across various OECD countries.



Summarized by Faical Al Azib from OECD, Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators – Indicator B1; B2; B3. Access to Education, Participation and Progress: