IOE PRESS RELEASE
Why do English-speaking countries – including England, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – do relatively poorly on international comparisons of adult skills? A symposium of senior academics and practitioners from across the UK and Eire this week set out to answer this question and find ways to boost opportunities in their countries.
Andy Green, director of the Centre for Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES) at the Institute of Education, London, said social class background was still exerting a powerful influence on the skills of England’s adults. He led a study showing that the gulf between the highest and lowest achievers in literacy and numeracy is exceptionally large. The gap is widest for young adults. Along with the US, England has the widest gap for this age group of all the 24 countries recently surveyed by the OECD. For all working-age adults In England, the difference in numeracy scores is wider than in all but two countries (France and the US). Northern Ireland’s skills gap is almost as wide as England’s, Professor Green found.
The symposium, hosted by the Higher Education Research Centre (HERC) of Dublin City University in association with LLLAKES and the Royal Irish Academy, brought together researchers and policy makers with a shared interest in enhancing adult skills.
Professor Maria Slowey, director of HERC, said: “The relatively poor results for adults in Ireland point to the need to find ways to widen access to education and training across all levels, and at all stages of life – a ‘second chance’ for many who never enjoyed a ‘first chance’.”
The symposium, “How to tackle intergenerational equity gaps in knowledge and skills?” offered an opportunity to locate Ireland in a wider international context. OECD’s PIAAC study — which assesses the skills of more than 160,000 people in 24 countries in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving – was a key focus for discussion.
Professor Green’s analysis of the OECD evidence and other skills surveys shows that in England there is a particularly strong relationship between adults’ skills and their parents’ education levels. The education system itself has produced “exceptionally unequal skills outcomes” going back to the 1950s, which have been exacerbated by “an especially strong influence from social background” on children’s choices and opportunities, he told the symposium. “This is the primary cause of the relatively high inequality in adult skills in England today”.
He said: “These findings matter, because skills have well-known effects on labour market and wider social outcomes. Over the last quarter century the UK as a whole has experienced one of the fastest increases in wage inequality in the developed world.”
However, his analysis suggests that high quality vocational education helps to reduce inequality. He told the symposium that dual systems – such as Germany’s highly-respected approach involving both in-company training and education at vocational schools – helps reverse the inequality deriving from the education system at age 15. In addition, countries where there is high participation in vocational education and training also tend to have more equal skills distribution – though there are other contributing factors.
“It’s a Herculean task to bring down educational inequality when economic inequality is increasing internationally,” he said.
Speakers from both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland said that, unlike in England, where young adults score no better than older people, 16 to 24-year-olds’ basic skills surpassed those of people aged 55-65.
Donal Kelly, from the Republic of Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, said adults aged 16-24 perform 20 points higher on literacy than adults aged 55-65, with 12.9% of 16-24 year olds found at the lowest levels of literacy compared to 27.8% of 55- to 65-year-olds. Studies continue to show that early school-leavers are most likely to perform at low levels – but today just 6% of those aged 16-24 are in this category, compared with almost half of 55- 65-year-olds.
Victor Dukelow, joint head of analytical services for the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland, said that a comparison of the results of the International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in 1996, and PIAAC, conducted 2011/12, shows that literacy was improving. The proportion of the working population functioning at the lowest levels of literacy had fallen from 23% in 1996 to 18% in 2012. In addition, Northern Ireland was getting closer to the OECD average, although it still remained in the bottom half. The gap had reduced from 11 points (on a 500 point scale) in 1996 to 4 points in 2012, and it was improving at a good pace compared to other countries. Nevertheless, there is a clear recognition that much more progress is required if Northern Ireland is to match the best performing countries in these important skill areas.
Meanwhile, John Field, emeritus professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University, told the symposium that Scotland lacks the information it needs to boost adults’ skills and job prospects because the country decided not to take part in the PIAAC study.
“Not only do we lack a firm evidence base for evaluating skills distribution and comparing it internationally; we are as a result missing from the international conversation over the lessons from the survey,” he said.
Professor Field suggested it was a difficult time for those interested in improving adult skills in Scotland because the Scottish Government had focused its attention and money on full-time education, particularly higher education. “The two big losers from this focus are adult learners and people who want vocational education. We have seen a significant decline in numbers in both groups.” The number of part-time further education students in Scotland’s colleges fell by almost 200,000 in the five years up to 2012-13.
1. The OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) report can be found here.
2. To speak to Professor Green, or for more information please contact Diane Hofkins, firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 (0) 7976 703455. Professor Field can be reached on +44 (0) 7725 739475
3. The IOE: The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and a third judged to be “world leading”. Its performance places it in the top 10 universities nationally for research. In 2013, Ofsted judged the IOE’s Initial Teacher Training provision for primary, secondary and further education to be ‘Outstanding’ across the board. In the latest QS world rankings for Education, the Institute is placed 7th; on the indicators of research quality and impact, it is placed 3rd, alongside Harvard and Stanford. More at www.ioe.ac.uk
4. Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES): This Economic and Social Research Council-funded research centre investigates the role of lifelong learning in promoting economic competitiveness and social cohesion, and in mediating the interactions between the two. Key areas of research include: i) the social and cultural foundations of learning, knowledge production and transfer, and innovation, within the context of a changing economy, and ii) the effects of knowledge and skill distribution on income equality, social cohesion and competitiveness. It has a programme of multi-disciplinary and mixed method research which addresses these issues at the level of the individual life course, through studies of city-regions and sectors in the UK, and through comparative analysis across OECD countries.
Green, A., Green, F. and Pensiero, N. (2014) Why are Literacy and Numeracy Skills in England so Unequal? Evidence from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills and other international surveys, published by Llakes, can be found at: http://www.llakes.org
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2013-14 is £212 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
6. Dubin City University delivers more than 200 programmes to over 12,000 students across its four faculties DCU’s excellence is recognised internationally and it is ranked among the top 50 Universities worldwide (QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ 2013). In the last eight years, DCU has twice been named Sunday Times ‘University of the Year’ in Ireland.
DCU’s Higher Education Research Centre (HERC) is an interdisciplinary research group, led by Professor Maria Slowey, Director of Higher Education Research and Development in the Office of the Deputy President and Registrar. The Centre undertakes and promotes research in the broad field of higher education and lifelong learning in collaboration with colleagues across DCU, linked colleges and partners in other universities in Ireland and internationally. The particular focus is on policy orientated research that brings the research community together with those engaged in policy and practice in higher education from public, private and NGO sectors, as well as representatives of civil society: stimulating debate and facilitating collaboration.
For further information contact: Maria Slowey Maria.Slowey@dcu.ie