Friday, 11 October 2013

Thoughts on the OECD survey of adult skills

The first OECD survey of adult skills (PIAAC) was published this week. It's a fascinating - and, at almost 500 pages, immense - report. As England comes close to the bottom of the league tables - especially amongst 16-24 year olds - it has been presented as a condemnation of our education system. And you'd have to be remarkably complacent to read the report and not be concerned about our apparent global weakness in basic skills but it's worth highlighting some things that a superficial reading might miss:

1) The report isn't really telling us anything we didn't already know from PISA - the OECD's existing international comparative test for 15 year olds. It looks worse than PISA because we're at the bottom of the league table rather than somewhere in the middle, and our scores are below average rather than average, but that's a bit misleading. Far fewer countries participated in this survey than in PISA and most of those that did also do better than us in that test.

2) Those countries that did better than us in PIAAC but not PISA (e.g. France, Sweden, Czech/Slovak Republic) all have compulsory literacy and numeracy for those in post-16 education. As do pretty much all the other countries that participated. As a majority of our 16-18 year olds don't study English or Maths it's not really surprising that even countries we're marginally ahead of in PISA do better than us in PIAAC. If we were to increase the numbers of 16-18 year olds doing these subjects (as both the Government and Labour want to do) I'd expect to see us rise up the tables a bit.

3) The questions PIAAC uses (like PISA) are very applied - i.e. are focused on using literacy and numeracy in "everyday" situations. Our education system doesn't focus on applied skills in the way that others do; especially post-16. By contrast the other big international comparative test for 15 year olds, TIMSS, tests whether pupils have mastered the specific knowledge and skills outlined in curriculum content common amongst participating countries. We do much better in TIMSS than PISA so it's fair to assume our post-16 issue is also with applied skills rather than curriculum skills. All of which seems to support mathematician Tim Gowers' proposal for post-16 courses in real-world maths.

4) This difference between applied and curriculum skills may go someway to explaining how it can feel to so many people that our system has improved over the last 15 years despite our PISA results flatlining and our PIAAC results showing our 16-24 year olds doing so badly. We may have improved a lot in things that PISA/PIAAC don't measure; while making little progress in things they do. Another factor may be that the politics/media world tends to focus on London where the system almost certainly has improved while ignoring continued underperformance in other parts of the country.


  1. I'd be interested to know the variance and uncertainty in the measurements and more broadly, what is the threshold of literacy and numeracy that is actually required for every day participation in society? What percentage of the population is below it? In practical terms are there real disadvantages to scoring a bit lower than others in these measures? The most striking thing about PISA scores is how similar they are for the majority of the economically developed countries. If marginal differences don't have much effect putting the effort and resource somewhere else is likely to have greater cost-benefit.

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