The OECD survey will be cherry-picked by the doomsayers, but in fact it says more about class than ‘failing’ schools
England is the only country in the developed world where 16- to 24-year-olds have lower levels of literacy and numeracy than their grandparents, says the first OECD skills survey. Ha, just as we thought! Our schools are failing us, the older ways of education were better, other countries are getting ahead, everything is going to the dogs.
But before this becomes part of the received wisdom of public debate, let’s pause for a moment to consider its foundations. The arresting headline referred to a new report about levels of literacy and numeracy among adults between 16 and 65 across 24 countries. Such reports tickle one of the media’s most easily aroused erogenous zones, with its seductive mixture of “objective” statistics, international comparisons, league tables – and a grim moral for Britain (though this report carefully omits Scotland and Wales, which historically have had distinctive cultural attitudes to education).
Various kinds of caution may be in order before drawing any large conclusion from these findings. First, the OECD, following its remit, is principally concerned here with questions of employment and the needs of business. The report is not about schools, but about specific “skills” levels in adults.
Second, it is a snapshot of literacy and numeracy levels now. The fact that some countries, such as England, ranked higher in the 55-65 age-group than in the 16-24 age-group does not mean there has necessarily been a “decline” in attainments over the past 40 or 50 years. It may merely reflect that some of the countries involved had relatively undeveloped education systems 50 years ago, and so as they rise in the ranking, others will sink.
Third, the survey does not deal with the larger cultural patterns within which this distribution of skills occurs. Yes, South Korea has made remarkable strides in economic development in the past couple of generations, but this has rested on local cultural foundations that other countries could not replicate and may not want to. For the most part, the east Asian tigers have focussed on turning out a workforce adapted to the level of industrial modernising at which those countries have found themselves. It is not clear whether most parents in England or many other countries would be happy for their children to be submitted to the stressful educational regime that seems to be the norm in these societies.
So, one main danger is focusing too confidently on the question of national contrasts. Across the world’s economies in general, the demand for highly educated workers is increasing, but the demand for many types of skilled and semi-skilled workers is falling, with more people filling unskilled service jobs. The figures in the OECD survey may say more about this global trend in employment than about national variations within it.
And likewise, we should not jump to the conclusion that this report tells us how well different national schools systems are doing their job. A great many of those 64-year-olds may well have acquired quite a lot of their literacy and, especially, numeracy since they finished formal schooling, in some cases almost 50 years ago. Similarly, the tests on those 18- to 24-year-olds may reveal much more about home background and other forms of stimuli than simply what happens in the classroom. This may be the kernel of the worrying truth about England. There is no shortage of evidence pointing to the shaming relation between social class and educational achievement in this country. The report, to its credit, is alert to one consequence of this, declaring: “England stands out with a handful of nations where social background determines reading skills.”
In so far as any inferences can be drawn about different nations’ school systems, it looks to be that those committed to high-quality comprehensives, such as Finland, yet again come out on top. Although doom-sayers will cherry-pick this report to suit their case, it should be clear that a more brutally stratified and class-segregated school system is not the answer; it is part of the problem.