Why low adult numeracy shows the number’s up for navel gazing

By Newman Burdett

Tuesday 8 October 2013

There are few surprises for England and Northern Ireland among the results from the International Survey of Adult Skills, the most recent large scale assessment of adult competencies, published today. The reports for England and Northern Ireland – produced by the International Comparisons team here at NFER – contain both good news and issues of deep concern, with the data raising more questions than it answers. NFER will certainly be looking to answer some of these questions over the coming weeks and months, and let’s hope others also take time to dig deep into what is a rich seam of data, to start unravelling some of the complex stories it contains – not least how qualifications translate into skills and how those skills translate in the job market.

From a personal perspective, I think the data validates the arguments for a careful approach to GCSE reform set out in our recent series of NFER Thinks policy papers. In particular, it puts the position we argue in our policy paper on mathematics into stark relief – that too many people are leaving school without the mathematical skills that OECD feel necessary for modern life. And that this is something England particularly struggles with. England’s performance in numeracy was significantly below the OECD average with 24 per cent of adults in England having low proficiency in numeracy (defining low proficiency as Level 1 or below on the survey’s numeracy proficiency scale – to help those not familiar with the survey. Andreas Schleicher characterised it as the level expected of an average 10 year old child).

What happens in the classroom is not just about GCSE grades or league tables. The issues we are discussing are not just pedagogic theory or academic interest; they have a real and profound impact on our lives and the society around us – and this new data highlights the need to take a step back and look at the big picture and what needs to be achieved.

This survey is well timed in that there is a lot of work being currently undertaken, both at the policy level and smaller initiatives, to try and ensure that people leave school at 18 ready for life. And it makes clear how much of a cross-departmental, cross-specialisation, cross-platform approach will be needed to make a real impact.

Here at NFER we will continue to stress the need for evidence-based decision making at all levels, the need to ensure adequate and well thought out pathways through our education system and the need for a special focus on those who are at danger of disengaging but can be retained within education. I think the data from this latest survey makes the economic case for these approaches more eloquently than words can.