Pertinent comments in OECD report on young people’s basic skills in England. But did OECD ignore its advice to use underlying data with caution?

Janet Downs's picture

‘Call to ban students with poor English and maths from universities’, says TES commenting on the OECD report ‘Building Skills for All: Review of England’.

The article says young people with poor basic skills shouldn’t be studying at university.  Allowing such weak students to graduate undermines the value of degrees.

But is it true that 20% of young English graduates struggle to undertake tasks more difficult than reading instructions for taking aspirin or understanding a petrol gauge?

The data underlining the report came from the Adult Skills Survey 2013.  The OECD warned the survey’s results should be used with caution because of sampling problems.  These particularly affected England.

But the authors of ‘Building Skills for All’ don’t seem to have followed OECD advice.  They’ve taken the data at face value and haven’t included the caveat.   This rather undermines claims about poor basic skills among young graduates.

That said, the report contains pertinent comments about education and basic skills in England.   Its recommendations are as follows (author’s comments in brackets):

  1. Give priority to intervening early to ensure all young people have stronger basic skills
  2.  Establish more demanding basic skills standards in upper secondary – 16-19 year-olds.  (Although young people are expected to repeat GCSEs in English and Maths until they achieve a C, it’s demotivating to go over old ground.  Better, surely, to concentrate on improving basic skills via a non-GCSE route.)
  3. Improve the move from schools to employment by providing good quality apprenticeships and training.  (The key words are ‘good quality’.  The Government is committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships but should take care not to confuse quantity with quality.)  
  4. Reduce the number of undergraduates and replace the university route with further education.  The removal of the cap on university numbers could perversely increase the risk of low basic skills in undergraduates.  Savings from reducing university numbers could be redeployed to more appropriate sectors particularly further education.  (But FE has suffered from decreased funding over years.  And Minister Nick Boles has said it is ‘sensible’ to move resources from full-time FE to apprenticeships.) 
  5.  Use evidence to support adult learning.  Provide high-quality teachers.  Make use of ‘relevant learning environments', including the workplace and the home. (But teachers don’t need a teaching qualification to teach in academies or FE colleges, the Government says.)


The OECD noted that English pupils take high-stakes examinations (GCSEs) at 16, two years earlier than upper secondary exams in many other countries.  If the English education system were to be designed from scratch, the report said, it’s not likely it would ‘include an awkward programmatic and institutional break point at 16’.

The more ‘radical’ solution would be to ditch GCSEs in favour of an ‘English Baccalaureate’ at 18.  This is something I and others such as the CBI have argued for – graduation at 18 possibly by multiple routes.   The OECD recognises that other voices might argue this is not possible because of the ‘labour market currency of GCSE’.  It says, therefore, there must be ‘stronger options post-16’ to ensure all under 19s have access to good quality education.

Good quality post-16 education needs appropriate funding. But the Government expects schools and colleges to make savings while it shifts money from one pot to another and continues spending money changing schools into academies when there’s growing evidence that changing a school’s structure does not automatically bring improvement.



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