A First Glance at The OECD Survey of Adult Skills 2013

7 October 2013

Like many of you I’m sure, I haven’t had the chance to give anything like the considered detail the 466 pages of the full report of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills deserves. But the ‘Country note: England and N. Ireland’ is helpful in pointing us straight to what we need to know, at least at this early stage, about the results of this survey for England and Northern Ireland.

(NB. Scotland and Wales did not put themselves forward to take part in the survey – at some point it will be interesting to explore this and the consequences).

Briefly the context – the OECD survey begins from the impact of the technological revolution on every facet of life including the skills adults have and the demand for those skills. It suggests that the need for routine cognitive and craft skills is declining, while the demand for information-processing and other high-level cognitive and interpersonal skills is growing, as well as information-processing skills, communication skills, self-management and the ability to learn.

The Survey of Adult Skills was carried out to look at the key skills of literacy and numeracy, and something called ‘problem solving in technology-rich environments’. Around 166,000 adults aged 16-65 were surveyed in 24 countries and sub-national regions.

So although it demands very close consideration, and a proper analysis of how the survey was carried out and what the implications for the UK are, a first look at how we fared in comparison to other countries is the obvious first step. England and Northern Ireland are, for the most part, considered together.

On literacy, England/N. Ireland come 15th, out of 24 countries – 16.4% of adults, or around 5.8 million people, in England and Northern Ireland score at the lowest level of proficiency in literacy (at or below Level 1).

On numeracy, the situation is bleaker still, England and N. Ireland come 17th and the report points out: ‘England and Northern Ireland have some of the highest proportions of adults scoring at or below Level 1 in numeracy. In fact, 24.1% of adults, around 8.5 million people, score at that level compared to the average of 19.0%’. This is seen as one of the key issues facing England and N. Ireland and one we have been concerned about for many years.

And in ‘Digital Skills’ the survey found that nearly half (49%) of adults in England and Northern Ireland scored at or below Level 1 in ‘problem solving in technology-rich environments’. However this places us 9th and is above the average score.

There are two other major findings in the survey that deserve closer attention. Firstly England and Northern Ireland have been more effective in activating their highly skilled adults than many other countries participating in the survey – we are very good at using and continuing to develop those who have the highest level of skills. But it warns that the talent pool of highly skilled adults is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries because the highest skills belong to the section of society that is closest to retirement.

Secondly, there is a strong and positive association between higher literacy proficiency and social outcomes in England and Northern Ireland, more so than in many other countries. The OECD suggests that we need to address social inequalities, particularly among young adults.

Now for a health warning – this is a first look at the headline tables, and there is much richer data to be found, which will be heavily scrutinised over the next few months. But the main messages will not come as a surprise to people in the learning and skills sector. In fact they mirror the findings of the English Government’s own survey, the Review of Skills for Life in 2011, and the concerns over young adults were first brought to light in our own Participation Survey which we published back in May for Adult Learners’ Week.

Many millions were invested in the Skills for Life strategy which turned around the way literacy and numeracy was taught to adults. We would be highly naive to expect after only 10 years or so that we would have solved the issue of low skills. These issues are generational and are closely linked to social class and poverty across the UK. It will take a lot longer to turn this around.

However we cannot be complacent – the sixth largest economy in the world should not be in this position when it comes to the literacy, numeracy and technology skills of its population and this is something we must take extremely seriously and act upon now.

This is the first in a series of blogs from NIACE on a range of aspects of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills 2013. We are interested in your views of the survey, please add your comments below.