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…



11 thoughts on “School leavers falling behind in Literacy and Numeracy according to the OECD – Not”

  1. outstanding blogpost – I really wish you would post more but I recognise that quality is probably far superior to quantity.

    Sadly I am attracted to the “slow journey to hell in a hand basket” message of the DT. Thank you for puncturing the bubble.


  2. Hi Ermine

    1) I note that Aus chaps between 16-24 and peak earnings have the steepest gradient. I wonder how much of that additional learning is driven by motivation caused by competition. To compare our great country with the smallest continent. Aussies are taught that second place is the first loser where here in the UK second place is rewarded and celebrated.
    2) The way the England curve flattens between 45-54 and 55-64 looks like suspicious data to me given that nearly every other country is falling over that period. Is there something in our water or is there a data issue…



  3. @Robert Me too – I was looking forward to a good old ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ rant until I read the report 😉 Having said that it’s not just the retired colonels at the DT – the Grauniad stuck the boot in along similar lines. I repeated the exercise using the OECD interactive data site just to make sure I hadn’t screwed up after I saw the Graun saying the same thing!

    @RIT I don’t think there’s a data issue – the OECD report is outstanding because it’s primary research where the tests are independent of national exams. It’s possible this indicates England has had a reasonably stable education system, where there’s a tail-off for the older generations which is most dramatic in Korea that’s probably a sign of massive improvements in the education system over time. The older generations are the fossil record of what it used to be 😉

    @Greg well done – I carped too early as I wrote this while the report must’ve been still public release embargoed until the States woke up – my link was to the press preview it seems!

    @BTS that seems to be the case, as Greg and I demonstrated between us!


  4. What a fantastic article. Personally I get fed up with the endless right wing (Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail) rants against the young. Like you, it is a long time since I was one, but I can see merit in the students I teach, and its not their fault that elderly arty-farty pillocks with no respect for science or maths (a.k.a. politicians) have done their best to bog up the UK education system. Despite that, the rising generation generally do well at basic skills, and also hard work. It’s good that your careful examination of the data supports this view. As someone once said, you are entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts.


  5. I’ve now managed to read most of the report. It’s well written and data rich, though they don’t display errors so it’s quite hard to know how solid their data-points are. (I think RIT does have a point.) However, it seems a pretty sounds piece of work and I would recommend anyone who has an interest in this sort of thing to read the summaries of each chapter.

    Don’t forget that it is just one study, and that it doesn’t immediately invalidate others. Remember this from last year? The media certainly doesn’t!

    My take homes are (nothing revolutionary):
    – Our 16-24 year olds probably _are_ under-performing both their older peers and many other countries. Perhaps the shift into “exam results factories” is to blame? We probably do need to do something about it, probably the exact opposite of whatever that arrogant moron Gove imposes. However, I don’t know _what_ to do as I’m not an expert!

    – It’s downhill after 30! This makes sense, as 16-24 year olds are still mostly being educated, and older people don’t use all the skills gained and (hopefully) had a worse education (as well as the slow loss of dynamic mental skills).

    – Our older people are doing ok relative to their peers. This could be due to good initial education or good maintenance of skills (e.g. adult learning), offsetting the natural decay. The report tries to look into this but not in depth. However, as you and the report point out, we should expect our oldies to do well compared to countries like Korea.

    – We really need to compress the range of skills by raising the skills of the lowest. It can be done and there are good examples like Japan or the Scandinavian countries.

    – If you are an immigrant, you _must_ learn the language to avoid misery, but even if you do, you are likely to end up less skilled.

    – It is surprising how poorly skilled the population at large is with computers.

    – Skilled people are a lot more likely to continue to improve, engage politically and in the community (e.g. charity.)

    – The US has created and is continuing to create an underclass with a severe shortage of skills, who then suffer the rest of their lives. There is a massive gap between their lowest tier and the rest.

    – Seriously, the US is in real trouble.

    Oh and thanks for taking my rather rude joke well, particularly as it is obvious that you are clearly capable. I couldn’t resist picking a choice quote. 🙂 I should have put a smiley in it anyway. (The smiley is an interesting phenomenon which I feel plays in important role in casual messaging.)


  6. @Greg Interesting – I came to roughly the same conclusion on further reflection, that there may be issues in the UK though nowhere near as ghastly as the papers made out! I didn’t see the problems with the US, but i didn’t particularly look. I also found it shocking how poor analytical computer skills are, particularly in the area of analysis of data. It’s surprising that as an old git having cleared the workforce I can parse and process data better than average.

    > (as well as the slow loss of dynamic mental skills)

    Nah. I recently looked at a copy of Boas’s mathematical methods one of my UG textbooks, and Green’s theorem, which is roughly where I bailed as a 21-year old. I was able to follow it better after three decades. I am not sure that this decline holds as long as you keep turning the mental engine over.

    I was quicker and more adaptable in my 20s, but prone to horrific jumping to conclusion, deriving the general from the particular and
    chasing far too many shortcuts for my own good. That’s not to say I’ve sorted these traits and cognitive biases out by now, but at least I’ve learned to lean against some of them. This counts for something in practical effectiveness 😉

    > thanks for taking my rather rude joke well

    Life’s far too short not to be able to laugh at oneself – I set myself up for that one to touche 😉


  7. Hah! Boas! I still have my 13 year old copy somewhere and I too got confused with Green’s theorem in a plane. Similarly, I can come back to something years later and understand it much better the second time, despite not having had anything to do with it in the intervening period. I call it learning by osmosis. 🙂

    Remember all this is about averages; you’ve clearly been keeping your analytical mind far better exercised than the population as a whole. Even now you’ve switched to pondering more general themes, you are keeping the dynamic part sharp.

    I enjoy it when it is clear you’ve set out to write an article with a particular idea or gut feeling, only to have completely changed by the time you’ve actually spend some time looking into it! If only everyone did that, as opposed to either ignoring anything that doesn’t match with pre-conceived ideas or just not bothering to look at all. I suspect that this mental laziness might be linked with growing older – one has more memories & old ideas to draw on so the temptation to shoehorn something new to fit into them must be greater!

    It seems you’ve gone the opposite way, but I suspect that for the majority the adage that middle age is where one’s broad mind and narrow waist change places is true.


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