There has been a massive debate in Britain over the results of the OECD’s adult skills survey. Known as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the survey involves a series of standardised assessments for individuals in 24 countries, backed up by the collection of background data for each participant. Taken as a whole, Britain’s adults came across as reassuringly mediocre in their performance, coming just below average on literacy, numeracy and IT skills among the countries surveyed.
However, as is usual in international surveys, behind the averages were some significant variations. The sub-group which attracted the most attention were young people, whose literacy and numeracy scores came close to the bottom. The Guardian ran the story under the banner: ‘England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills’. Or, as a Daily Mail headline had it, school-leavers are ‘worse at maths and literacy than their grandparents’.
Government ministers promptly seized on this figures to (a) rubbish Labour’s schools policies, and (b) support their own measures. Superficially, this is quite a reasonable claim: anyone who was aged 16-24 when the survey was administered in 2011 would have gone to school during the period 1992-2011, and Labour was in power for 13 of those 19 years. So a critic might suppose the results to reveal fundamental flaws in the education policies that dominated during that period.
Is this the case? I don’t really know, though I suspect that the answer may well be much more complex. But what worries me is that I am not expecting much light to be shed on this problem by my colleagues in the educational research community. For most education researchers, learning seems to stop when school or university ends. If you glance through the last few issues of the British Educational Research Journal or the programme of the British Educational Research Association’s latest conference, you will struggle to find any sign of interest in those who have left full-time education.
There is, of course, an obvious reason for this. Most university research into education is undertaken by people who specialise in training schoolteachers, and it is understandable that they study teachers and schools. Another group is employed in academic staff development, and they tend to study university teaching. So the question of what becomes of people when they leave full-time education is left to sociologists, economists and the occasional specialist in further or adult education.
Mind you, I still expect a few comments on PIAAC from the ‘mainstream’ educational research community. Most of them will lump PIAAC in with PISA as an example of the wider global trend towards ‘governance by data’ – a phenomenon that Alexandra Ioannidou has discussed in a journal article in 2007 and a number of subsequent papers (other scholars’ more recent accounts seem to me to add little to her analysis).
On the whole, I think I prefer governance by data to governance by opinion, anecdote and prejudice of the kind I associate with Michael Gove. And I would therefore welcome a little help from my fellow researchers, particularly those who studied British and other school systems during the period between the mid-90s and 2010, in understanding precisely how young people in England and Northern Ireland fell so badly behind.
Meanwhile, it will be left to hard-pressed practitioners in further and adult education to support these young adult learners as they try to bring their essential skills into line with the economic, cultural and social demands that they are so poorly equipped to face.