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### Is the Nation Ready to Bear the Consequences of Neglecting Education as a Top Priority?

Skopje, 24 January 2024: The significance of education as a fundamental catalyst for economic progress and human rights advancement cannot be overstated. Education serves as a vital conduit for individuals to acquire the requisite skills and knowledge essential for active participation in the workforce and economic contribution. Moreover, it plays a pivotal role in mitigating disparities and poverty by enhancing employment prospects and elevating incomes.

The recent findings from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2022 underscore alarming regressions in student learning outcomes. A detailed examination of the data underscores the imperative for a comprehensive societal approach to educational reform and underscores the repercussions of inertia.

The overall academic performance of students has markedly declined from 2018 to 2022. Merely one-third of 15-year-old students attained a basic proficiency level in mathematics (Level 2 out of 6), signifying that a significant majority struggled to grasp mathematical concepts without explicit guidance. The outcomes in reading paint an even bleaker picture, with only one in four students achieving the minimum proficiency threshold.

Robust economies hinge on a proficient and skilled workforce. However, the proportion of high achievers in PISA 2022 in North Macedonia notably lags behind the OECD averages. A meager one percent of students demonstrated excellence in mathematics, reaching Level 5 or 6 (in contrast to the OECD average of 9%), while the proportion of top performers in reading and science was negligible (compared to OECD averages of 7% in both domains). Failure to address this shortfall will perpetuate the country’s deficiency in human capital development and competitiveness.

Education possesses the transformative potential to uplift individuals from poverty; nonetheless, the PISA results underscore systemic inequities. In North Macedonia, students from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds (top 25%) outperformed their disadvantaged counterparts (bottom 25%) by a substantial margin in mathematics. Failure to rectify these inequities will perpetuate a system that reinforces disparities, thereby exacerbating poverty and limiting opportunities.

North Macedonia, akin to its Western Balkan counterparts, grapples with a significant brain drain as a substantial exodus of young, educated, and skilled individuals emigrate. The data indicates a worrisome trend, with a notable increase in student dissatisfaction with life. Between 2018 and 2022, the percentage of students reporting dissatisfaction with their lives doubled from 7% to 14%.

On a positive note, North Macedonia surpasses the OECD averages concerning students’ sense of belonging in school. In 2022, a majority of students in North Macedonia expressed ease in forming friendships at school (85%) and a sense of belonging (86%), outperforming the OECD averages of 76% and 75% respectively. This shared sense of belonging should be leveraged to ensure students receive quality education in a nurturing environment conducive to fostering interests and enhancing learning outcomes.

Furthermore, schools must equip students with an array of soft skills encompassing emotional management, negotiation, problem-solving, empathy, and communication. These proficiencies empower students to adapt effectively, become global citizens capable of navigating personal, social, academic, and economic challenges, and aid those grappling with trauma in developing resilience.

To bolster these outcomes and actualize inclusive quality education for all children, policymakers must reach a consensus on the necessity of augmenting public funding and investment in education across all tiers, including preschool education. Moreover, there is a pressing need to ensure the judicious and equitable allocation of resources to municipalities and schools. Adequate funding is imperative to enable schools to meet national educational benchmarks and facilitate the inclusion of vulnerable children, encompassing those with disabilities, hailing from ethnic minorities, and from underprivileged households.