Graded inequality

October 31, 2013

There was significant media coverage of the poor results recorded for the UK’s 16- to 25-year-olds under the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac) (“OECD says graduate skills don’t add up (and make for poor reading)”, News, 10 October).

In the press, the following propositions were advanced to explain the results: young people give up mathematics and English too early; the absence of a performance-based pay system for teachers; the quality of teachers; the lack of discipline in schools; the dumbing-down of the curriculum; low investment in further education; the reduction of resources for young adults; and grade inflation.

It seems the same report, along with international surveys such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, provides evidence for a wide range of diverse solutions.

Piaac itself attempts to throw some light on its findings, as the following quotations illustrate: “In [the] UK…social background has a major impact on literacy skills…the children of parents with low levels of education have significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education, even after taking other factors into account.”

It adds: “Adults who have low levels of education and whose parents also had low levels of education have, on average across countries, nearly five times the odds of scoring at lower levels of proficiency on the literacy scale than adults whose parents had higher levels of education.”

The OECD also states: “The results suggest that…gaining access to jobs at an early age, especially low-skilled jobs, might translate into very limited opportunities for young people to develop their information-processing skills beyond very low levels of functionality…This is particularly the case in [the] UK.”

It adds: “On average across countries, adults in skilled occupations score higher on the literacy and numeracy scales than adults in semi-skilled white-collar occupations. Literacy proficiency differences are largest in Canada, England/Northern Ireland (UK).”

While it is easy to view schools and teachers as both the sole cause of and the solution to low levels of educational achievement, the OECD suggests that in the UK in particular, the problems are also connected to wider factors, specifically high (and growing) levels of social inequality and the nature of employment.

Paul Morris
Institute of Education
University of London

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