Why it matters if you can’t read this

by Tanja Bastianic
Statistician, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Adults who lack basic skills – literacy and numeracy – are penalised both in professional and private life. They are more likely to be unemployed or in precarious jobs, earn lower wages, have more health issues, trust others less, and engage less often in community life and democratic processes.

Basic skills are not complicated. What we measure in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills is the ability to process the information needed to perform everyday tasks – to read the instructions on a bottle of aspirin or to know how many litres of petrol are needed to fill the tank.

In Australia, around three million working-age adults – one in five – currently have low basic skills and are living with the consequences. And if Australia doesn’t tackle this problem, it risks being left behind by countries investing more successfully in the skills of their people, especially in a world where work is undergoing a rapid technology-driven change and people have to adapt to new circumstances (See figure).

Many Australians with low levels of education have low skills – this comes as no surprise, as they often quit education at an early stage. Perhaps more surprising is that a higher level qualification doesn’t guarantee advanced basic skills. The OECD study published today, Building Skills for All in Australia: Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills shows that 17% of Australians with a vocational Certificate IV, Advanced Diploma or Associate Degree still have low levels of basic skills. 
Australia’s post-secondary VET (Vocational Education and Training) system is inclusive and caters to adults with different needs, including those with poor basic skills.  This is a real asset to the Australian education sector. But the OECD argues that providers of post-secondary VET could do more to help those students with poor basic skills.
The study also highlights specific weaknesses in the numeric skills of young women in Australia, indicating that far greater attention should be devoted to ensuring that young women participate fully within Australia’s wider efforts to strengthen mathematics within secondary education. Opportunity exists, moreover, to better support young people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training (the NEETs) to reengage in learning whether through the development of pre-apprenticeship provision or access to better childcare for young mothers.
The OECD Australia review follows a number of similar studies on low basic skills conducted in the United States, England, and Finland. The OECD’s work on adult learning and skills is designed to help countries identify where skills-related challenges arise among adults, and then offer them an opportunity to redirect their skills policies and investments. The review of Australia is part of this work.  
Helping adults to improve their basic skills remains a challenge nearly everywhere and there are no easy answers. But the alternative – of doing nothing – is even worse. So each of these studies help us all understand the challenges better and offer a menu of interventions to help countries tackle the issue. 
To read a literature review about the problem of low basic skills, visit Adults with Low Literacy and Numeracy Skills: A Literature Review on Policy Intervention
Photo credit: @Shutterstock 

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