More evidence on the benefits of adult learning – the OECD Adult Skills Survey

Plenty of people have commented on the relative performance of different nations in the OECD’s Adult Skills Survey. Relatively few have picked up on the wider messages that are based on results from all the 24 participating states. Here, I’ll just focus on those that relate to the benefits of adult learning.

First, the survey provides clear and compelling evidence of the association between adult skills and economic outcomes. This, you might think, is obvious: of course skills help you stay in work and raise your earnings. But rather than relying simply on intuition, it does help to have robust evidence of the consistent effect of adult skills on earnings and on employability. And the survey findings confirm other studies pointing clearly in this direction.

Further, the results add to our understanding of the wider benefits of learning. In all the countries surveyed, people with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and to play no role in associative or volunteer activities. In most of the countries surveyed, they are also less likely to trust others. Anyone who teaches adults will probably snort with derision, as they must have seen these changes with every group they have supported, but once more it is good to have robust evidence.

These effects are not massive, partly because adult learning is so strongly associated with prior education, but they point to a significant and clear independent impact from learning. The challenge for policy makers will be to focus public policy on supporting learning that attracts those who did not benefit the most from school and university earlier in their lvies. Is this best done by targeted initiatives, or by building a broad learning culture?

The survey also provides insights into the relationship between skills and wider inequalities. I will write about those separately. Meanwhile, it is good to see that it confirms other research on the role of adult learning in helping people change their lives.

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