Survey shows England falling behind in basic skills

It is not only mathematics and science skills that are faltering. Even literacy is declining among youth

By Randeep Ramesh  /  The Guardian, London

Sat, Oct 12, 2013 - Page 9

England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In a stark assessment of the success and failure of 720 million-strong adult workforce across the wealthier economies, the economic think tank warns that in England, adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than people aged 16 to 24 in both foundation levels of literacy and numeracy. The survey did not include people from Scotland or Wales.

When the results within age groups are compared across participating countries, older adults in England score higher in literacy and numeracy than the average among their peers, while younger adults show some of the lowest scores for their age group.

The survey shows that out of 24 nations, young adults in England (aged 16 to 24) rank 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. England is behind Estonia, Australia, Poland and Slovakia in both areas.

This compares unfavorably with the adult population as a whole; English adults (aged 16 to 65) rank 11th for literacy and 17th for numeracy.

The OECD cautions that the “talent pool of highly skilled adults in England and Northern Ireland is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries.”

The findings come as the skills of the next generation take center stage in British policy debates — with the prime minister last week calling for young people under the age of 25 to be stripped of benefits so that they can “earn or learn” their way through life.

The government blamed the last administration, saying that the young people covered by the survey “were educated almost entirely under the last Labour government — for example, someone aged 18 when they took the OECD tests would have started school aged five in 1998 and finished compulsory education aged 16 in 2009.”

In the survey, the first of its kind, 166,000 people in 22 OECD member countries as well as Russia and Cyprus, sat through two hours of intense questioning about their skills and background.

The report, launched on Tuesday in Paris, shows that there appears to be a distinct hollowing out of the workforce across the rich world — with jobs requiring highly educated workers rising by around a fifth while those needing a medium or low skills base dropping by about 10 percent each.

England stands out with a handful of nations where social background determines reading skills. Along with Germany, Italy, Poland and the US, the children of parents with low levels of education in England have “significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education.”

The OECD also warns that when looking at information technology, which it says is key to reshaping the workplace in the developed world, only 42.4 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland are proficient to the extent they can handle unexpected outcomes. This compares with the average of 50.7 percent.

Even worse is that young adults in England and Northern Ireland scored 21 percent lower than those in South Korea — the best-performing country. Although the US has a reputation for being the information-technology center of the world, the survey found that its youngsters were the worst for basic technology proficiency — scoring 4.8 percent below young adult Britons.

“The implication for England and Northern Ireland is that the stock of skills available to them is bound to decline over the next decades unless significant action is taken to improve skills proficiency among young people,” the OECD said.

These changes have already had major implications the global labor pool for talent.

Britain used to provide 8 percent of the best educated workers — but today only providing 4 percent of the top qualified labor.

By comparison South Korea was not on the map two generations ago. Young South Koreans now make up 6 percent of the highly skilled talent pool.

What is clear is the rise of a very different form of training and education in East Asia, designed to rapidly lift their populations out of poverty. Nowhere is this more stark than Japan, where people leaving high school achieve a higher literacy level than English graduates.

At a fringe meeting attended at the Conservative Party conference, British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Education Matt Hancock told delegates that Japan’s model of vocational training was something that the “government was looking at very closely.”

“People talk about Germany and its progress in making sure non-university graduates are skilled up for the workplace. However, the real success is Japan,” he said.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills, said that Japan is very good at developing skills, but its “education system works in silos and productivity growth is so-so. Compare this to the UK and US, where they are no longer good at developing talent, but very good at extracting value from the best workers.”

“It is a question of which problem do you wish to have? In Japan they need to fix labor markets and make them more responsive to skills. In the UK it is a much harder problem to fix which is creating a training program,” he said.

Basic skills across the developed countries

Literacy for people aged 16-24

1 Finland

2 Japan

3 South Korea

4 Netherlands

5 Estonia

6 Australia

7 Sweden

8 Poland

9 Czech Republic

10 Germany

11 Austria

12 Slovak Republic

13 Denmark

14 France

15 Canada

16 Norway

17 Ireland

18 Spain

19 England and N Ireland

20 UK

21 Italy

22 Cyprus

Literacy for all adults

1 Japan

2 Finland

3 Netherlands

4 Sweden

5 Australia

6 Norway

7 Estonia

8 Slovak Republic

9 Flanders (Belgium)

10 Canada

11 Czech Republic

12 Denmark

13 South Korea

14 England and Northern Ireland

15 Germany

16 US

17 Austria

18 Poland

19 Ireland

20 France

21 Spain

22 Italy

Numeracy for people aged 16-24

1 Netherlands

2 Finland

3 Japan

4 Flanders (Belgium)

5 South Korea

6 Austria

7 Estonia

8 Sweden

9 Czech Republic

10 Slovak Republic

11 Germany

12 Denmark

13 Norway

14 Australia

15 Poland

16 Canada

17 Cyprus

18 Northern Ireland

19 France

20 Ireland

21 England

22 Spain

23 Italy

24 US

Numeracy for all adults

1 Japan

2 Finland

3 Sweden

4 Netherlands

5 Norway

6 Denmark

7 Slovak Republic

8 Flanders (Belgium)

9 Czech Republic

10 Austria

11 Germany

12 Estonia

13 Australia

14 Canada

15 South Korea

16 England and Northern Ireland

17 Poland

18 France

19 Ireland

20 US

21 Italy

22 Spain