Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Building Skills for All: A Review of England

OECD Skills Studies: Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills

Malgorzata Kuczera, Simon Field, Hendrickje Catriona Windisch

Early interpretations of the autumn 2013 Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) results for England and Northern Ireland rang some terrible alarms: we’re at the bottom of pretty much everything, with only the US and some of the southern European states meandering in and out of equivalent low performance parameters; and our youths are showing a terrible paucity of basic skills, with our older cohorts on retirement’s door responsible for holding our performance statistics up towards average. If I recall correctly, the only place we were deemed to perform reasonably well was in improving basic skills through workplace involvement and application.


The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the OECD and CVER, the Centre for Vocational Educational Research based at the London School of Economics (LSE), released the results of further analysis of the statistics and associated policy recommendations at an event last Thursday, 28th January. This appears to have been a similar exercise to the reports released by NALA in the Republic of Ireland last autumn. They suggest nine million adults of working age, or a quarter of the population, struggle with basic functionality for life and work, particularly in numeracy. These numeracy issues place us well below the OECD average.

Weak basic skills reduce productivity and employability, damage citizenship, and are therefore profoundly implicated in challenges of equity and social exclusion.

OECD, 2016:1

These issues present up the qualification scale; and clearly demonstrate an entrenched absence of assured basic skills development applied across educational provision. It cannot be assumed that ‘it’ has been ‘done already’. Remediation is more costly than getting it right in the first place at each appropriate stage of education. The raft of reforms integrating improved basic skills development into post-16 adult provision cannot be evaluated effectively yet.

Recommendation 1: Give priority to early intervention

We have three times as many 16-19 years olds with poor basic skills, mainly numeracy, than the highest performing nations; and a high level not in formal education or training, at 30%, rather than the close to zero of other OECD nations. Migrants were explicitly excluded from these figures. Those with GCSEs and level 2 and 3 NVQs (including English and maths) perform below their counterparts in other countries with upper secondary qualifications.

Recommendation 2: Sustain reform efforts and increase basic skills standards for upper secondary education

The UK has made great leaps in extending university participation across society; however, the basic skills profiling of our university students is the worst of the OECD, heavily dependent on parental background. Outcomes demonstrate many are likely to better benefit from shorter professional or vocational programmes which incorporate basic skills development; leading to improved labour market prospects. All provision needs to do more to develop basic skills to and beyond level 2, with more students entering Further Education.

Recommendation 3: divert unprepared university students and enhance basic skills tuition

Sixty percent of the low-skilled are in work; however, the UK has one of the highest levels of young adults neither in employment, education nor training (NEET). As skills decline with lack of use, cycles of unemployment and low-skills work may limit the effect of remedial basic skills education later in life.

Recommendation 4: Improve transitions into work and promote upskilling at work

There are many practical and personal barriers to addressing weak basic skills in adults which need support to be overcome. Part of this is appropriately trained and resourced teachers. In addition, a number of key targeted techniques are found to have impact including formative assessment, e-learning twinned with tutor input, contextualised learning, and family literacy and numeracy programmes.

Recommendation 5: Use evidence to support adult learning

The full report can be found here. CVER appear to have a regular schedule of events at the LSE in London, which can be found here.

1 Comment

  1. From: Hamilton, Mary
    thanks for these useful notes, Tara.
    I have been trawling through the UK media coverage of this report at the end of January and there was quite a bit of this, fuelled by a blog by one of the authors that is posted on the CVER and the OECD’s websites. I can send you list of what I found if you are interested.

    One thing I noticed about the coverage was that the new report was not very securely linked to the original PIAAC survey but it was presented as new research, whereas it was actually a spin-off (further analysis) from the earlier (2 years ago now) survey findings.

    ….. also the media strongly picked up on the finding about university students along with a suggested a policy response to send some of the low-skilled students to FE colleges instead – not sure where this idea came from – do you know?

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