England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest, according to the first skills survey by the OECD.
In a stark assessment of the success and failure of 720 million-strong adult workforce across the wealthier economies, the economic thinktank warns that in England, adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than 16-24-year-olds in both foundation levels of literacy and numeracy. The survey did not include people from Scotland or Wales.
When the results within age groups are compared across participating countries, older adults in England score higher in literacy and numeracy than the average among their peers, while younger adults show some of the lowest scores for their age group.
The survey shows that out of 24 nations, young adults in England (aged 16-24) rank 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. England is behind Estonia, Australia, Poland and Slovakia in both areas.
This compares unfavourably with the adult population as a whole; English adults (aged 16-65) rank 11th for literacy and 17th for numeracy.
The OECD cautions that the "talent pool of highly skilled adults in England and Northern Ireland is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries".
The findings come as the skills of the next generation take centre stage in British policy debates – with the prime minister last week calling for young people under the age of 25 to be stripped of benefits so that they can "earn or learn" their way through life.
The government blamed the last administration, saying that the young people covered by the survey "were educated almost entirely under the last Labour government – for example, someone aged 18 when they took the OECD tests would have started school aged five in 1998 and finished compulsory education aged 16 in 2009".
In the survey, the first of its kind, 166,000 people in 22 OECD member countries as well as Russia and Cyprus, sat through two hours of intense questioning about their skills and background.
The report, launched on Tuesday in Paris, shows that there appears to be a distinct hollowing out of the workforce across the rich world – with jobs requiring highly-educated workers rising by around a fifth while those needing a medium or low skills base dropping by about 10% each.
England stands out with a handful of nations where social background determines reading skills. Along with Germany, Italy, Poland and the United States, the children of parents with low levels of education in England have "significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education".
The OECD also warns that when looking at information technology, which it says is key to reshaping the workplace in the developed world, only 42.4% of 16-24-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland are proficient to the extent they can handle unexpected outcomes. This compares with the average of 50.7%.
Even worse is that young adults in England and Northern Ireland scored 21% lower than those in South Korea – the best-performing country. Although the United States has a reputation for being the IT centre of the world, the survey found that its youngsters were the worst for basic technology proficiency – scoring 4.8% below young adult Britons.
"The implication for England and Northern Ireland is that the stock of skills available to them is bound to decline over the next decades unless significant action is taken to improve skills proficiency among young people," said the OECD.
These changes have already had major implications the global labour pool for talent.
Britain used to provide 8% of the best educated workers – but today only providing 4% of the top qualified labour.
By comparison South Korea was not on the map two generations ago. Young South Koreans now make up 6% of the highly skills talent pool.
What is clear is the rise of a very different form of training and education in the far east, designed to rapidly lift their populations out of poverty. Nowhere is this more stark than Japan where high school leavers achieve a higher literacy level than English graduates.
At a fringe meeting attended at the Tory party conference, the skills minister Matt Hancock told delegates that Japan's model of vocational training was something that the "government was looking at very closely. People talk about Germany and its progress in making sure non university graduates are skilled up for the workplace. But the real success is Japan."
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's deputy director for education and skills, said that Japan is very good at developing skills but its "education system works in silos and productivity growth is so-so. Compare this to the UK and US, where they are no longer good at developing talent but very good at extracting value from the best workers".
"It is a question of which problem do you wish to have? In Japan they need to fix labour markets and make them more responsive to skills. In the UK it is a much harder problem to fix which is creating a training programme."
Source: Guardian News