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OECD basic skills report makes grim reading

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 February 2016

Brian Creese
After three years of deliberation, number crunching and further evidence-seeking, the OECD has published its report on the basic skills of adults in England based on the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey. It does not make for happy reading, and to save you the misery of trawling through its 110 pages, I thought you might like a brief summary. But you may want a stiff drink before you settle down and read this blog…
An estimated nine million adults of working age have low basic skills.
This is the number of working age adults OECD estimates have poor or very poor literacy and/or numeracy skills and puts England close to the bottom of the OECD rankings. The particular concern for England is that while in other countries standards are improving, in England they are not. The performance of older age groups is as good if not better than the youngest, while in most countries younger cohorts have higher skills than their elders. At every qualification level low literacy and numeracy skills are more common among young people in England than in most other OECD countries. And it should be stressed that these young people are not predominantly school dropouts or the unemployed, they are mostly in work.
In England one-third of those aged 16-19 have low basic skills.
Once again this puts England at or near the bottom of all OECD countries. The OECD suggest that it is not just getting more young people up to the grade C at GCSE that matters, as they think that those with GCSE at that grade still perform less well in basic skills than their equivalents in other OECD countries. Indeed, our national obsession with qualifications may be partly to blame; our young people have gained more qualifications than ever before, but that has not translated into evidence of improved literacy and numeracy.
Around one in ten university graduates has low basic skills.
The survey suggests that 10% of undergraduates do not have level 2 skills in literacy and/or numeracy. They suggest that universities have not recognised the poor level of basic skills that new entrants actually have. I’d like to say that I find this unbelievable but my experience of coaching applicants for PGCE courses to pass their required Numeracy Skills tests often left me bewildered. How does a graduate not actually know how to divide by three? The OECD go on to suggest that universities should consider not graduating students with low basic skills, which would be a drastic solution.
Having berated the schools and higher education sectors, the report actually endorses the approach to adult education that has been researched and advocated by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) and companion organisations. They recommend concentrating on formative assessment, blended learning (mixing online and traditional study), contextualised approaches and family based programmes.
Despite being so depressing, it is hard to argue with these findings. I think we know from our own contacts and research that they are broadly correct. Perhaps the one positive note is the evidence that young people in England do better once they enter the workforce, suggesting that work based courses and employer support can be effective at upskilling young employees.
The OECD recommendations are:

  • Priority should be given to early intervention to ensure young people have stronger basic skills.
  • Sustain reform efforts and increase basic skills standards for upper secondary education.
  • Divert unprepared university students and enhance basic skills tuition.
  • Improve transition from school to jobs by offering opportunities to upskill…. through good quality apprenticeships and traineeships.
  • Use evidence to support adult learning.

These are all sensible suggestions, but, the devil is in the detail. Successive governments have prioritised early intervention to improve basic skills. However, if the OECD survey results are to be believed this appears to have failed to raise standards. Similarly, the government cannot be faulted for advocating for apprenticeships; here the important phrase is ‘good quality’ and many in the sector are concerned about how they might deliver those.
The final recommendation, using evidence to support adult learning, may hopefully propel adult literacy and numeracy practice and pedagogy back onto the Government’s agenda. After a long period of being ignored by government, that would certainly be a positive outcome arising from this depressing report.

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