by Simon Field Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
After all, they are just pieces of paper with fancy script and impressive-looking designs, and employers are surely interested in what people can actually do – their skills – rather than pieces of paper? A new OECD study, entitled Building Skills for All, A Review of England casts a spotlight on this question.
Qualifications are useful because they make skills visible. It is confidently assumed that the holder of a school-leaving certificate can read and understand instructions, and make calculations, and that those with university degrees can do much more. This confidence allows employers and others to decide how to make the best use of the skills of the labour force.
In England, as in many countries, young people have more qualifications than ever before. Hopefully that means progress. But surveys of literacy and numeracy, like the new 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, sometimes cloud this rosy vision. In England, although young people aged 16-24 have many more and better qualifications than those aged 55-65, their basic skills are no better. That is something of a surprise, because in most other OECD countries educational progress, in the sense of more qualifications, also corresponds to better basic skills.
The study of England defines the low-skilled as those below level 2 in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – these are people who very often would find it difficult to understand the instructions on an aspirin packet, or estimate how much petrol remains in the tank after looking at the gauge – basic life skills rather than technical tasks. Roughly one third of those aged 16-19 have low skills by this definition, three times more than the strongest performers, such as the Netherlands, where only one in ten of the same age group have low skills. England’s active programme of school reform, and more recently a set of measures to address literacy and numeracy weaknesses in this age group is therefore very much needed, and it has far to go.
Coming back to qualifications, how many people with good qualifications have low skills? Across many OECD countries, it is striking how many university graduates have relatively low levels of literacy and numeracy. In England one in ten university students have low skills – far too many. But in some ways this is not a surprise. Looked at across countries England stands out from the crowd: despite weak skills among the teenagers that aspire to enter university, the entrance rate to universities is high.
Qualifications do have a point, but that means they need to reliably signal skills. Employers need reassurance that qualified young people, including university graduates, have adequate literacy and numeracy. This report argues that, in England, this calls for a rethink, particularly on the role of university education. With a bit of effort, qualifications might come to mean a whole lot more.