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Adults in UK lag behind other countries in numeracy and literacy skills, survey reveals

Young people in England and Northern Ireland are no better skilled than their grandparents and are lagging behind their peers in other countries, the first global skills survey has concluded.

While the OECD Survey of Adult Skills found 16 to 24-year-olds in top-performing countries such as Japan and Finland displayed stronger literacy, numeracy and digital skills than the older generations, there was little difference between the 16-24 and 55-65 age brackets in both England and Northern Ireland, the only parts of the UK which were represented in the study.

The skill levels of UK graduates were found to be roughly equal to those of Japanese school leavers, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills, told a press briefing in London.

Of the 22 countries which took part, the UK was ranked 14th in literacy and 16th in numeracy overall for 16-65 year-olds, recording below-average scores in both categories. Both tables were topped by Japan, with Finland in second place.

Among 16 to 24-year-olds, the UK fared even worse, ending up in the bottom three in both tables.

Chris Jones, chief executive of the City & Guilds exam board, said the results should be a “wake-up call to the government”.

“This issue is vital for the social and economic health of the country. We need to see a relentless focus on preparing young people for the world of work,” he said.

Mr Schleicher stressed that the results demonstrated the “impact of cumulative [government] policies over the past decade”.

“In the UK, 16- to 24-year-olds today only do as well as their grandparents did in a very different work environment,” he said.

“Society has changed quite dramatically. You could say older generations keep learning and that’s moving the bar up - it's a quite possible explanation - but younger ones are quite clearly significantly behind their peers in other countries in these essential foundation skills."

Mr Schleicher added: "You can see Japanese school graduates do basically as well as tertiary [level education] graduates in the UK, when it comes to literacy and numeracy skills."

Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, also expressed concern about the UK’s performance.

“We are almost unique in having almost no difference between 16 to 24-year-olds and 60 to 65-year-olds in all those skills,” he said. “This means people leaving the labour force are no better qualified than those entering it.

"There’s a major problem about confidence and competence in the use of skills among young adults, and a far wider gap between people who do well and badly in these tests than in most countries.”

The Department for Education blamed England’s poor performance on the previous government. “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… We are fixing the problem with a more rigorous curriculum, better teaching, higher standards and tougher discipline.”

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