The OECD Skills Report: implications for all countries

Janet Downs's picture
The OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills report is more than just a league table of country scores – it contains valuable insights. These include (author’s comment in brackets):

1 A wide literacy gap is associated with inequality in income distribution.

2 Those with low literacy skills are more likely to have poor health, feel marginalized by the political process and less likely to trust others.

3 Low skills don’t necessarily lead to unemployment – most low-skilled adults are employed. However, they’re at greater risk of being unemployed or earning a low wage.

4 Governments need to ensure policy making is “more inclusive” and builds “real engagement with citizens” (as opposed to paying lip service to the Big Society while saying the young unemployed need a “dunt”).

5 Significant numbers of adults in all but one of the countries tested do not possess the “most basic information-processing skills”.

6 In most countries, immigrants who don’t speak the host language have significantly lower levels of literacy/numeracy skills. Countries should find effective methods of encouraging immigrants to become fluent.

7 Countries where the difference between younger and older adults is small need to improve the teaching of numeracy and literacy AND provide opportunities for adults to develop and maintain skills (this doesn’t mean more tests – there’s already an excessive emphasis on raw results in England).

8 Much learning takes place outside formal education. This is a “formidable challenge” for countries including England/Northern Ireland which have large numbers of adults at or below Level 1 in literacy and numeracy. The OECD recommends that Governments:

(a) “Provide high-quality initial education and lifelong learning.” (The best-performing school systems tend to be those combining equity with quality. But the English educational system is one of the most divided in the developed world.)

(b) “Make lifelong learning opportunities accessible to all.” (But Skills and Enterprise Minister, Matthew Hancock, said nothing about adult education when he commented on this report. He said there’d been no progress since the availability of “comparable data in the late 90s”. But the Adult Skills Survey is the first of its kind. Does anyone know what he means by comparable data”?)

(c) Invest in “high-quality early childhood education” (the Coalition has increased the number of free hours of nursery provision for 3-4 year-olds but many Sure Start centres have closed and schools minister Liz Truss wants to increase the child/adult ratio).

(d) Money should be targeted at disadvantaged students and schools (Pupil Premium is a step in the right direction but this was interpreted by the Daily Mail as “bribing” selective schools to admit “poorer pupils” who would “jump the queue”).

(e) Develop links between schools and employers. (Gains made by the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in raising the profile of work-related education have been set back. Michael Gove has removed the obligation to provide work experience for 15 year-olds; careers guidance has been devolved to schools who often fail to provide impartial and independent careers advice).

(f) Make sure training is available and relevant. Public assistance might be needed to help small enterprises provide training; employers and trade unions both have important roles in shaping education (Gove rubbishes the input of unions in the education sector – there’s little chance of this Government including unions in any initiative).

(g) Recognise and certify skills proficiency (the Government devalues Level 1 qualifications by saying Level 2 – GCSE C and above – qualifications are the only ones that matter; the Government devalues skills by an excessive emphasis on knowledge).

The above recommendations include more than just initial education but that’s been the focus of most media and political comments. There’s been silence about the socially-segregated English educational system; the role of lifelong learning has been overlooked and the link between social background and low skills proficiency has been ignored.

Above all, no attention’s been paid to the OECD’s advice to use the data with caution. Sober analysis is trumped by the irresistible desire to use the report to justify Gove’s reforms (which might actually make things worse) and ignore, as Matthew Hancock did, the report’s insights.

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