English and maths skills: do England’s young people catch up once they’re in the workplace?

Brian Creese, National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC)

I have lamented here before that while the OECD’s comparative assessment of 15-year-olds (PISA) is deemed sufficiently important to cause entire shifts in a country’s education policies, the adult equivalent, PIAAC, creates barely a flutter of interest.

Having said that, one finding has struck home, albeit incorrectly. I have lost count of how many times I have had to correct speakers claiming that, uniquely, the skills of England’s young people are worse than those of the older generations. Actually PIAAC tells us nothing about my skills compared to someone 30 years my junior. What it does is compare us with similar cohorts in other countries. So actually the 2012 report tells us that our young people perform poorly compared to similar aged cohorts across the OECD while my cohort does rather better than similarly aged people in other countries.

Dr Newman Burdett’s study of the data for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), presented at a conference last week, does confirm that England’s adult skills age profile is unusual. In most countries sampled the highest performing adult cohorts are those closest to the end of full time schooling, whereas in England the best performing group is the 55-65 year olds. This does suggest that England does less well at preparing school leavers for the sorts of literacy and numeracy skills they will need in work – assuming that this is what PIAAC does accurately measure. Further analysis suggests that English young people in that 16-24 age group are less likely to participate in education or training than those in other OECD countries. So far, so bad it seems.

However, Dr Burdett then looked at the 1996 survey of adult skills, IALS, to see how the cohorts perform across time. He wanted to see if there was an age effect – a difference shown in the skills of a cohort over time – as opposed to a cohort effect – the difference in skills between generations.

The study shows that the English 16 to 25-year-olds in 1996 also performed poorly compared to those from other countries in the study, but by 2012 this group  have improved their English and maths skills substantially. This ‘age effect’ seems unusually pronounced in England compared to the other countries.

So while in other countries young people emerge from schooling with better literacy and numeracy skills than ours, our young people go on to improve these skills after compulsory schooling. This effect explains why, overall, England performs averagely
compared to other OECD nations despite the poor performance from the youngest cohort.

The findings might suggest that our post-compulsory education is better than we think, or it could be that employers are far better at educating workers in the workplace than in other countries. At NRDC we have a feeling that there is a healthy culture of informal learning in the workforce and of employers finding ways of getting the best from their employers which is largely unrecognised.

We cannot be complacent about this. There are no guarantees that the current cohort of young people will thrive in the workplace in the future like their 35-year-old colleagues. High unemployment in that age group could have a negative effect on the skills of the current generation and the effect of current changes to the school leaving age and compulsory study of GCSEs are as yet unclear. But this research does provide a believable and coherent narrative that plausibly describes how our young people develop their literacy and numeracy skills. This is the reality which future policy needs to build on.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education, International comparisons

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This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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