England's young adults trail world in literacy and maths

Exam hall Despite decades of rising exam results, young adults have shown little progress

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Young adults in England have scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in international literacy and numeracy tests.

A major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows how England's 16 to 24-year-olds are falling behind their Asian and European counterparts.

England is 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.

The OECD's Andreas Schleicher warned of a shrinking pool of skilled workers.

Unlike other developed countries, the study also showed that young people in England are no better at these tests than older people, in the 55 to 65 age range.

When this is weighted with other factors, such as the socio-economic background of people taking the test, it shows that England is the only country in the survey where results are going backwards - with the older cohort better than the younger.


The study shows that there are 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland with the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old.

"This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world," said Skills Minister Matthew Hancock.

"These are Labour's children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations."

Numeracy test 16 to 24-year-olds

  1. Netherlands
  2. Finland
  3. Japan
  4. Flanders (Belgium)
  5. South Korea
  6. Austria
  7. Estonia
  8. Sweden
  9. Czech Republic
  10. Slovak Republic
  11. Germany
  12. Denmark
  13. Norway
  14. Australia
  15. Poland
  16. Canada
  17. Cyprus
  18. Northern Ireland
  19. France
  20. Ireland
  21. England
  22. Spain
  23. Italy
  24. United States

Source: OECD Survey of Adult Skills 2013

Ministers in England have announced a new maths qualification for 16 to 18 year olds as part of a drive to improve numeracy and its requirement that maths should be studied until the age 18 for those who do not have a good GCSE in the subject.

The newly-appointed shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt defended Labour's record.

"Labour drove up standards in maths and English across our schools, evident in the huge improvements we saw in GCSE results between 1997 and 2010."

He said a future Labour government would "ensure all young people study maths and English to 18" and would not allow "unqualified teachers to teach in our classrooms on a permanent basis".

Young adults in Northern Ireland performed better in the OECD tests than in England, but they were also in the bottom half of these rankings.

The highest-performing countries among this younger age group were Japan, Finland and the Netherlands. The country with the lowest numeracy skills was the United States, plummeting from once being one of the strongest education systems.

This landmark study from the OECD set out to measure the level of skills within the adult population - testing actual ability in literacy, numeracy and digital skills, rather than looking at qualifications.

It involved 166,000 adults taking tests in 24 education systems, representing populations of 724 million people. From the UK, adults in England and Northern Ireland participated.

The study looked at the level of skills across the adult population, between the ages of 16 and 65. England and Northern Ireland are below average for both literacy and numeracy, in league tables headed by Japan and Finland.

But for most industrialised countries the younger population are much better at such tests than the older generations.

Dr Jasper Kim describes South Korea's education system

Mr Schleicher pointed to the examples of Finland and South Korea where there had been huge progress in recent decades.

A statement from the Finnish embassy highlighted that this was about a long term commitment to improving schools.

"This demonstrates that there is a longer trend in the Finnish education success, it is not just something that has happened in recent years."

However, for England, when the results are separated from Northern Ireland, there was a different and unusual pattern, with almost no advance in test results between the 55 to 65-year-olds and those aged 16 to 24.

This younger group will have many more qualifications, but the test results show that these younger people have no greater ability than those approaching retirement who left schools with much lower qualifications in the 1960s and 1970s.

The grandchildren are not any better at these core skills than their grandparents.

Global race

Mr Schleicher says it might suggest evidence of grade inflation and it shows that better qualifications do not necessarily mean better skills.

"When you look at this snapshot you do have to conclude that these young people are not any better skilled when it comes to those foundation skills than people in the older generation," he said.

He warned of the serious economic implications of a failure to provide a skilled workforce.

Andreas Schleicher Andreas Schleicher has warned that young adults in England are falling behind other countries

The influential OECD expert showed how there was an increasing demand in the jobs market for those with higher skills - and a static or falling jobs market for those with lower skills.

England and Northern Ireland have particularly high levels of adults with the lowest skill level in literacy and numeracy.

The economic and social rewards for having high skills are particularly strong in England and Northern Ireland, says the research, with significant advantages in health, job opportunities and income.

The global economic race is strongly linked to educational performance and the OECD report shows how the UK's share of the highest skilled workers is falling.

An even sharper decline is faced by the United States, an education superpower of a previous generation. Last year the OECD warned that the US was almost the only developed country facing educational "downward mobility", where the younger population is less well educated than the older generation.

This latest study shows that the US once had 42% of the world's highest-skilled adults but this had now fallen to 28%.

Mr Schleicher set out the scale of the difference in ability, saying that many secondary school pupils in Japan were ahead of graduates in England.

Neil Carberry, the CBI's director for employment and skills, said the UK's economic future depended on improving the skills of the workforce.

"This survey simply emphasises that the UK cannot afford to stand still on skills."

Ian Brinkley, director at the Work Foundation think tank, said the study showed the UK faced a "relative decline in the economy's skills base".

"We face a major generational challenge."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Our schools are failing for many reasons - funding, quality teachers in Public schools. Another main reason is the home-life. For me, many of the issues in the UK stem from an imbalanced homelife where parents spend minimal time talking and interacting with their kids. We often wish to give the next generation what we didnt have, but forget the things that we did have-Love, time and patience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Its not that surprising. The Literacy and Maths "skills" of many teachers arent what you would expect.

    I'm not sure if its still the case, but trainee teachers have to sit a basic timed tests on English, Maths & IT. Failing is not a problem because you can take the tests as many times as you like until you get lucky with an easier one (or one you remember)

    Really reassuring

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    Our school system works like this: make the best students worse so that the worst students feel like the best. Never tell anyone off because you'll make them feel bad and thus perform worse. Never tell parents off because it's entirely up to the schools to make them bright.

    Bring back grammar schools!

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    My daughter was having problems with literacy. When we saw the reports from her teacher they were full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. We went to the school to find out what was going on. We were told we should be more understanding because her teacher's first language was not english !

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    two kool 4 skool ...init

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    The comedy film 'Idiocracy' is coming true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    @Israel Barnett (128)

    Well done to you -- if only we could live in Brazil for two years and achieve a level of Portuguese anywhere near that of your English! I think we'd mostly be at the level of thinking the locals ought to damn well understand English if we raise our voices enough. If this study had been about foreign languages, I shudder to think what the outcome would have been.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    24 Minutes ago

    so who is responsible? Teachers first, parents second.


    You`ll probably find it`s Gove first with teachers and parents equal second.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Where does it actually say that teachers are doing a bad job?
    Outrageous response to this, as ever.
    Maybe the youngsters of today have similar literacy and numeracy skills to the 55-65 year olds, but how many 55-65 year olds can competently creats a professionally edited video or design an app, skills I see in action every single day at school.
    Get off the bandwagon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    After a half-century of ‘progressive’ education this outcome surprises you?


  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Often young assistants using a till can't work out the change until the till works it out for them, something that comes natural to older generations

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Not sure why it matters: this is car-crash Britain. We lost our way a long time ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    @121.Steve Cole

    agree with reference to Belgium, in fact pupils from many competitor countries are multi-lingual, they're in very strong positions for global business activities.

    good teachers are constrained by other bad ones with social agendas, staff room politics, bullying, govt policies, council & inspector interference, box-ticking admin etc.

    thus teacher staff turnover is very high.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Basing on my experience, something’s not right in the education system but I can’t quite say what it is.in Italy people are under the impression that new generations are, erm, not as smart.I moved to the UK about 3 years ago and I noticed the same thing. I can spell better than the English people I know, including my wife.. which is shocking to say the least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    One of the things which always held me back at school was the number of people who were disruptive to the class or busy bullying the kids who wanted to do well - taking up the teachers time and discouraging pupils from trying to strive. A step forward is to return some authority to the teachers, so that pupils who want to learn are given the attention and guidence they deserve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    if we are going to copy everything the USA does without thought of the consequences - then this the result - roots of this go back to 1996 when Blair elected - not too difficult to put 2+2 together

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Yes, "learn through play" and all this lazy stuff. Add here X-factor, footballer pay, Big Brother and on-line porn and you have your learning motivation for the kids. I must be right because the US is even worse and this is where these lovely attitudes thrive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Education, education, education (once for each main political party). No political interference in education. No one leaves primary school until they can read, write and count. Simple recipe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Michael Gove should resign.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.




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