Skills are gained and lost throughout life, not banked once in school

Inez Bailey, Director, NALA

by Inez Bailey, Director, NALA

The results from the new OECD Adult Skills Survey (PIAAC–Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) showed that 18% of Irish people,  aged 16 – 65, scored at or below Level 1 in terms of their literacy skills, the lowest level on a five level scale. This is a 4% improvement from the last survey of adult literacy which took place in the mid-1990s. It places Ireland 17th out of 24 countries surveyed to date.

For the first time ever, we have levels for numeracy – the survey showed that 25% were at or below Level 1 here. This places Ireland even further down the international rankings at 19th place. The survey confirms findings from other reports that people with the lowest skill levels also have low educational attainment, earn less income, are more likely to be unemployed and have poorer health. 

If there was one thing NALA could change, it would be for Government and employers to pledge that every citizen without a Leaving Certificate qualification (or good literacy and numeracy skills) would be offered a training programme and be supported to develop their skills.

The soon to be established Further Education and Training Authority, SOLAS, will develop an Adult Literacy and Numeracy Strategy and this should prioritise all citizens without a Leaving Certificate qualification (or good literacy and numeracy skills). The providers of our education and training system cannot assume that literacy and numeracy skills are firstly fully banked in school and secondly are up to date when we return to learning. They need to change how they deliver their programmes and provide adult learners with opportunities to develop these skills alongside their subject and vocational areas.

Secondly, it is vital that employers act on the findings of the survey and invest in the upskilling of workers.  It is important that literacy and numeracy, once thought of only in the context of schooling, is now understood as an integral part of labour force development and is built into all staff development programmes. This will provide a cost effective opportunity for employers to support their employees wherever they are on the skills continuum and to be confident of the return on their investment.

Finally, it is important that the public understand the importance of developing skills throughout life, to help them make informed decisions about participation in learning. It is clear that individuals, who regularly develop and maintain their skills, will be more employable, better paid and have better health – three real and motivational benefits. Similar to health promotion campaigns that encourage us to measure our waists, we need ways for people to check the health of their literacy and numeracy skills and take appropriate action to get in better skills shape.

The Adult Skills Survey challenges how we think about skills. It provides strong evidence that mass participation in mainstream education alone does not produce strong literacy and numeracy skills for life. The highly skilled were three times more likely to participate in further learning. The results show that at any one time people’s skills exist along a continuum from weak to strong. They also show that while skills are influenced by educational attainment, they are also influenced by factors such as skills used in work and day to day living. Skills are developed and maintained throughout life and are not banked once during formal education.

The Government, education and training providers, employers and individuals all have a part to play to make mass adult education a reality in Ireland, especially for those who have benefitted least from educational opportunity to date. It is fair and progressive and is what the high performing countries in this survey are doing well.