‘Equity in education requires early intervention’ – impact and challenges of low literacy and numeracy levels amongst young people in England

2 February 2016

Last week the OECD published its latest report into literacy and numeracy skills. Building Skills for All: A Review of England provides shocking evidence of poor basic skills levels amongst young people in England. 

The report shows that young people aged 16-34 in England have significantly lower literacy and numeracy skills at every level compared to many other countries. The disparity is most stark amongst the least qualified young people – those qualified below level 2 – with 48% of young people in this cohort having low basic skills, compared to an average of just less than 30% amongst other OECD survey participants. Within the 16-19 age group around one third of young people in England have low basic skills – this is three times higher than in many of the OECD’s best performing countries such as Finland, Japan, Korea and The Netherlands.

While these statistics are powerful, particularly in terms of national comparisons, it’s crucial that we understand the impact of low literacy and numeracy skills upon people’s lives. Evidence in the report, and from wider research, consistently shows that people with low basic skills levels are more likely to be ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEET) and, if in employment, often become trapped in low skilled jobs and earn lower wages throughout their working lives, compared to people with higher levels skills. 

At Learning and Work Institute (LW) we’re striving for a fair and inclusive society, in which everybody has opportunities to aim high and achieve their potential in learning, work and throughout life. But we know that for many groups of young people this just isn’t the reality. Our work with young people leaving care, young parents and young adult carers consistently highlights the deep-rooted and complex disadvantage that these young people typically face. For example, in 2013-14, 41% of 19 year old care leavers were NEET, compared to just 15% of all young people in England. The National Audit Office estimates that the lifetime cost of the current cohort of 19 year old care leavers being NEET is £150 million more than if they had the same NEET rates as other young people. Wider education and social outcomes of care leavers are also poor – 84% leave school without five good GCSEs, 70% of prostitutes have been in care and care leavers are four times more likely to commit suicide than anybody else. Whilst a range of complex and inter-related factors contribute to the notoriously poor economic and social outcomes experienced by care leavers and other disadvantaged groups of young people, low basic skills levels are undoubtedly an important factor in trapping these young people into a cycle of disadvantage that is often perpetuated throughout life and across generations.

One of the key recommendations of the OECD report is that ‘priority should be given to early intervention to ensure that all young people have stronger basic skills’ – LW’s programmes of work with some of the most disadvantaged young people reinforces this. Our work highlights the importance of good tracking, data and early intervention to improve skills levels and overcome individual barriers to learning and employment. For some young people this may mean support with housing, health and money – issues which, in reality, take priority over learning – followed by or alongside engaging, relevant and meaningful opportunities to develop good literacy and numeracy skills. Programmes delivered by qualified professionals who understand the complexity of the challenges that many young people face, who will support them to achieve small steps of progress towards tangible goals.