School leavers falling behind in Literacy and Numeracy according to the OECD – Not

You know how it goes – lovely bright sunny day here in the East of England, sparrows chirping, and it’s time to see what’s new in the world. The Torygraph tells me it’s all going to hell in a handcart, the old buffers at DT towers tell me

School leavers in England have lower levels of basic skills than their grandparents and now perform worse than young people in almost every other developed nation, according to a major international report.

Cripes. Okay, this is the Torygraph and the sky’s been falling in for decades. Frustratingly, they don’t give you a reference to this OECD report, presumably because as a reader you’re too thick as shit to be able to understand it, in some ironic post-modern self-referencing proof. However, the Ermine is tenacious and I have been digging for it so I have the reference for you[ref]It’s really maddening on some proprietary system because as an ordinary non-paying grunt you can’t d/l the PDF, but start at

(edit) that was apparently a press preview – get the full monty PDF for free with Greg’s link! (end edit)

There’s a more user-friendly interactive summary version at[/ref]

The whole document is strange – it is comprehensive but tries to slice and dice the survey of adult skills in all sorts of ways. The data is derived from interviewing and testing 5000 people in each country in their homes apparently. It would have been interesting to see what the tests were.

Now if we look at literacy proficiency [ref]to be found at[/ref]

Mean literacy proficiency
Mean literacy proficiency

and we lop out the 16-24 year olds, because a) they haven’t been to university yet and b) half of them aren’t adults IMO then the Torygraph’s snarl is not substantiated. Scores for old gits are 267 (chaps, 55-65) whereas for the 25-34 year olds it’s 281 (chaps, 25-34). Advantage, handsomely, to the young pups methinks.

Let’s take a look at numeracy[ref]to be found at [/ref]

Mean numeracy proficiency

Scores for old gits are 265 (chaps, 55-65) whereas for the 25-34 year olds it’s 275 (chaps, 25-34). Once again, advantage, handsomely, to the young pups, making it game,set and match.


University. Despite the fears of the Telegraph's retired colonels, something useful does seem to happen here
University. Despite the fears of the Telegraph’s retired colonels, something useful does seem to happen here (photo iStock)

I suspect the page that got the Telegraph’s dander up was this one

OECD literacy by age group
OECD literacy by age group

You can find this here and it clearly shows that the 16-24 years olds are short relative to the about to be retired. Unfortuately the tabular formation of this sucks, and even worse because I’m not entitled to get the PDF version I had to rekey some of these into Excel, to show this thusly

Hey, Torygraph, leave them kids alone!
Hey, Torygraph, leave them kids alone!

I’ve picked out the England results[ref]I’m not really sure why Scotland and Wales aren’t part of the OECD, while Northern Ireland is (and is comparable with England). Perhaps the OECD knows something about the Scottish referendum we don’t[/ref] in the heavy blue line. Note that our kids start about midway in this motley collection of First World countries, and get a lot better by the time they leave university. Which implies to me that for literacy our schooling is serviceable, and that our universities are remarkably successful in building on that, making the assumption that since about half of all English schoolkids go to university they lift the average, though of course it could be the non-uni half also make a decent fist of it. We also keep our literacy well in this country, by the time we become grizzled old gits like me (and I’m not even in the last cohort 😉 ) we are still able to read.

Note that this data has been adjusted for various factors. That may favour English old gits – when I went to university only about 11% of school leavers went, so higher education adjustments would up the scores for older people to compensate. There may be other factors – the trouble with compensating data for confounding factors is that you have to agree on the amount of detriment to compensate for.

I didn’t expect to come to that conclusion

When  I started writing this I was expecting to have a laugh with the Torygraph’s line. But it doesn’t stack up to my reading of the OECD data, and although I can be  stuck in my ways I try not to hold too many opinions that clearly at variance with the data. I used those ageing numeracy and literacy tables to come to a conclusion that isn’t the same as the Torygraph, and in general I charge the Torygraph with an across the board fail in their article.The OECD data does not show

[British] Young worse at maths and English than grandparents and behind ‘almost every other nation’

The writer knew the end of the article before they started writing it, and didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. No wonder they didn’t cite their sources properly, either 😉

I’m not saying it’s all hunky-dory – it may well be that the Chinese and Indians are miles ahead of us, work harder and the rest of it. The bar required for getting a job paying enough to enter the middle class is rising with globalisation, and living standards relative to the rest of the world will probably fall, though not necessarily absolute living standards.

I also have a suspicion that the young Ermine leaving Imperial with his Physics degree in 1982 might hold a decent candle to one leaving now, relatively speaking. My time in industry didn’t give me an overwhelming feeling that we were becoming better at general problem-solving, inferring knowledge and perhaps wisdom from data, and indeed on more than one occasion I had to stop someone about to so something that was going to be seriously dangerous. Even simple things that were universal knowledge (of electronics engineers) like the difference between audio Vrms and Vp-p, which can spoil an engineer’s day if not right [ref]the former is about a third of the latter, so getting this wrong can really piss you off if one end of the interface didn’t realise what’s meant; this is something I learned in 1976 O level Physics, not at university[/ref] were sometimes increasingly unfamiliar to those who should have known. But that’s probably why you need some old gits to leaven the young-uns – who were more open to new ideas, risk-taking and in specific fields knew far more even fresh out of university than I did after 30 years of working, though The Firm employed fewer and fewer graduates as its business changed.

But saying that the youth of today are less literate and innumerate compared to their grandparents is bollocks. We spend a shedload of money on tertiary education, so if some of that didn’t improve things from the 16-24s to the 24+  we really would have a problem. Graeme Paton is the Telegraph’s Education Editor, and while he delivered customer satisfaction to the Telegraph’s readership with a list of dog-whistle phrases

  • policies followed by the last Labour government had led to a decline
  • drop in achievement levels being disguised by years of “grade inflation” (yes, I’ve moaned about that too but the OECD tests were independent of O and A levels)
  • OECD data suggests that the UK has effectively gone backwards while other countries have surged ahead in terms of the basic skills needed in the workplace (err, no it doesn’t)
  • England’s position internationally is being dragged down by a long tail of underachievement
  • These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations

I don’t find the data backs him up. I think the grade is “Could do better” me old boy…