Why are Literacy and Numeracy Skills in England so Unequal? Evidence from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills and Other International Surveys

Executive Summary

The OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (SAS) recently revealed that, on average, literacy and numeracy skills in England are comparatively low among the 22 nations surveyed. Just as important, however, skills in England are very unequal. This paper investigates why numeracy and literacy skills in England’s adult population are especially widely dispersed. We find that:

– In England there is a larger gap in literacy and numeracy scores between the highest and lowest achievers than in most other countries.
– The high ranking on skills inequality is especially marked among those aged 25 to 29; for this group England’s high inequality is matched only by that of the United States.
– Countries with high levels of educational inequality tend to have high levels of skills inequality. Moreover, taking 10-year age groups from 25 up, we find that for each group educational inequality is among the highest in England. For example, among 45-54 year olds, only Spain and Northern Ireland are more unequal.
– The relationship between parental background and adult literacy and numeracy among those aged 16 to 24 is stronger in England than in all other countries except the Slovak Republic. England’s extreme position holds, even after we control for different levels of educational achievement.

We conclude that educational inequality over several decades has underpinned England’s persistent skills inequality, and that the impact of social background may be leading to high levels of skills inequality both through processes external to the education system and through those which are internal to it.

We also investigate and find no support for three possible additional explanations for England’s high skills inequality:

– Inter-age group skills differences: these are low in England.
– Skills differences deriving from migration flows: the effects are small in England.
– Especially unequal adult learning: the inequality of adult learning is broadly middling in England; moreover, there is no observed tendency for countries with high inequality of adult learning to have especially unequal literacy and numeracy in their older cohorts.