Are we prepared to pay the cost of not making education a national priority?

On the International Day of Education, Patrizia DiGiovanni, UNICEF Representative highlights further evidence why the country needs to create a multi-party commitment for education reform

24 January 2024
Two boys in a classroom, one wearing a white blouse looking at a device, the other looking at the camera UNICEF North Macedonia
UNICEF/North Macedonia/Georgiev/2022

Skopje, 24 January 2024: “Quality education is a key driver of economic growth and development and accelerator for all human rights. Education enables individuals to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to participate in the workforce and contribute to the economy. It also helps to reduce inequalities and poverty by improving job opportunities and increasing incomes.

The results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA 2022) showing concerning setbacks in student learning outcomes, were an alarm to the need for making structural education reforms a national cross-party priority. A deeper dive into the results highlights reasons why the country needs a whole society approach to education reform and the costs of inaction.

Overall student achievements are very low and have decreased between 2018 and 2022. Only one in three students aged 15 achieved a minimum level of proficiency in mathematics (Level 2 out of 6), meaning two out of three students failed to interpret and recognize, without direct instructions, how a simple situation can be represented mathematically). The results for reading are even more worrisome, with one in four students achieving minimum proficiency .

Strong economies rely on a skilled and competence workforce. Yet, the share of high achievers in PISA 2022 in North Macedonia is considerably lower than the OECD averages - only one percent of students were top performers in mathematics, attaining Level 5 or 6 (compared to OECD average of 9%), while almost no students were top performers in reading and science (compared to OECD averages of 7% in both fields).  If this is not addressed, the country will continue to lag behind in human capital development and competitiveness.

Education has the potential to lift people out of poverty, yet PISA results point to inequities in the system. In North Macedonia, socio-economically advantaged students (the top 25% in terms of socio-economic status) outperformed disadvantaged students (the bottom 25%) by 76 score points in mathematics. If these inequalities are not addressed, the system will continue to perpetuate inequalities, which will drive forward poverty and lack of opportunities.

North Macedonia, like the rest of the Western Balkans, is facing a considerable loss of young, educated, and skilled people due to emigration and results show this trend is likely to continue, as there has been a considerable decline in terms of students’ satisfaction with life. Between 2018 and 2022, the rate of students who reported that they were not satisfied with their lives doubled, from 7% in 2018, to 14% in 2022.

On a positive note, North Macedonia comes ahead of OECD averages on issues related to students’ sense of belonging at school. In 2022, 85% of students in North Macedonia reported that they make friends easily at school and 86% felt that they belong at school (compared to OECD averages of 76% and 75% respectively). This shared sense of belonging should be capitalized on, to ensure that students get quality teaching and a stimulating environment at school, to develop their interests and improve learning and life outcomes.

Schools also need to enable students to acquire a wide range of soft skills, like managing emotions, negotiation, problem-solving, empathy and communication. These skills help students become agile learners and global citizens equipped to navigate personal, social, academic and economic challenges, while also helping young people affected by crisis cope with trauma and build resilience.

To improve these results and make quality inclusive education a reality for all children, political leaders and decision makers need to agree on the need to increase public funding and investment in education at all levels, including preschool, while ensuring that the allocation of resources to municipalities and schools is efficient and equitable. The education system needs adequate funding to allow schools to meet national education standards and facilitate access and inclusion of the most vulnerable children, including those with disabilities, from ethnic minorities, and from poorer households.”

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