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UK ‘will drop’ in world literacy and numeracy table

Despite expected improvements in the overall proficiency, other countries are set to overtake the UK by 2030

The UK is projected to fall in worldwide literacy and numeracy tables unless the government intervenes now

Despite expected improvements in the overall proficiency, other countries are set to overtake the UK by 2030

The UK is projected to fall four places in global literacy tables and three places in numeracy tables by 2030, new analysis shows.

The Learning and Work Institute examined the literacy and numeracy levels of 17 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries – among which are some of the world’s most advanced economies – and developed a model to project what these levels would be in 11 years’ time.

This prediction shows that despite the proportion of adults with at least level 2 (GCSE, or functional skills) proficiency rising from 83 per cent to 85 per cent in literacy, and in numeracy from 75 per cent to 77 per cent, the UK would fall from 10th to 14th in literacy and from 11th to 14th in numeracy, out of 17 OECD countries.


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The report’s authors, Stephen Evans and Corin Egglestone, write that these projections suggest the rate of improvement in the UK’s skills base is likely to slow, adding: “Improvements in skills will therefore contribute less to economic growth and social justice.”

They conclude that with intervention now, the government could reverse this decline in the UK’s position globally for literacy and numeracy. This could be achieved if the government focused on improving the level of basic skills so 90 per cent of adults have functional literacy and numeracy by 2030, as well as increasing the number of people with level 2 and 3 qualifications to 20 and 30 per cent respectively.

Compared to the baseline, delivering this ambition would require an additional 3 million people to improve their functional literacy and numeracy by 2030, 1.9 million extra people to achieve level 2, and 1.8 million extra people to achieve level 3.

This could be achieved by roughly doubling current rates of adult attainment in these skills and qualifications in England.

£20 billion annual return to the exchequer

The report’s authors note that while this sounds ambitious, it “only returns the number of adults gaining full level 2 and level 3 qualifications each year back to the levels seen in 2010 – with a greater emphasis on level 3 within this and a 25 per cent increase in basic skills attainment compared to 2010”.

The total cost of additional learning would be £1.9 billion per year until 2030, but this would boost the economy by £20 billion annually to the Treasury and increase the size of the workforce by 200,000.

Mr Evans and Mr Egglestone conclude: “The case for a higher ambition for learning and skills is clear: it is crucial for economic growth and social justice. Making this happen requires a clear strategy, increased investment, and new ways of engaging both employers and individuals in learning.”

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