Finally we have them: the OECD’s first ‘Adult PISA’ results

To a non-educationalist this headline might not appear the most exciting news of the day, so let’s try this instead:

England’s young people are near bottom of global league table for basic skills

Or if you prefer the BBC version:

England’s young adults trail world in literacy and maths

OECD 2013
Interested now? Well we should be. We all have a stake in this.

England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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.

So now the political dog fight begins.

The minister for skills and enterprise, Matthew Hancock, said: “This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world. These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations.”

Labour hit back, saying that while in government it “drove up standards in maths and English across our schools, evident in the huge improvements we saw in GCSE results between 1997 and 2010”.

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said: “Of course, more needs to be done and that is why a future Labour government would ensure all young people study maths and English to 18, and would overturn David Cameron’s decision to allow unqualified teachers to teach in our classrooms on a permanent basis … we see in David Cameron an out-of-touch prime minister who cannot be trusted on school standards.”

Very sorry, Mr Hunt. This really isn’t good enough: must try harder.

Perhaps something along these lines.

“As you all know, this is my very first day in this job – and I’ve been handed a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. I won’t say that my predecessor was a hard act to follow. In fact I’ll come clean. It’s time we all faced facts.

For starters, there’s no point in me waffling on about my party’s past success in driving up “standards”. By now we all realise that the so-called “standards agenda” was about nothing more than “driving up” (appalling cliche!) scores obtained in timed tests and exams, whereas this OECD study is concerned with the literacy and numeracy skills that are used by adults in everyday living and working. To quote the BBC:

This landmark study from the OECD set out to measure the level of skills within the adult population – testing actual ability in literacy, numeracy and digital skills, rather than looking at qualifications.

To be frank, throughout its time in power New Labour’s approach to education was a continuation of its predecessor’s, and the current government is following suit. In short, there has a been “a relentless pursuit of attainment” (i.e. raising scores in exams) at the expense of promoting broader forms of achievement, including real life skills; at the expense of actual enjoyment of learning, and learning how to learn independently; at the expense of vocational and practical education; at the expense of equipping young people for life and for work after school.

We’ve now been found out by the OECD, and as a country we should be ashamed that we allowed this to happen. What can I say? Sorry?

OECD 2013 3

There’s no point in my political opponents using these results as a stick to beat my party. Throughout the years of the “standards agenda” they simply urged us to focus ever more relentlessly on academic attainment, and they clearly gave no more of a toss for real education and fundamental life skills than we did. When did they ever show any interest in developing young people’s resilience, self-confidence, creativity, imagination, social skills and communication skills?

I need to say sorry on behalf of my party to all those young people and teachers who had to suffer the imposition of the national literacy and numeracy “strategies”, with their daily hours of stultifying “instruction”. So many teachers told us that our attempts to micromanage the profession and impose teaching-by-numbers wouldn’t work – and it didn’t. Creative teachers hated it, and so did the students. The literacy hour prevented children reading whole books and having stories read to them in many schools. There was no real engagement with literacy or with learning maths through investigations and problem-solving. What we had was teaching to the tests and constant drilling in test and exam techniques. Which brought us to where we are now: young people who often don’t read for pleasure and who don’t know how to use mathematical skills in everyday life. Not all of them – to be sure. But far too many, especially when we see what’s been done in other countries.

We failed to ensure that from the time children first learned basic reading skills they felt motivated to read through being “hooked on books”. We have created a generation that simply doesn’t care about reading for meaning and enjoyment. We sucked the enjoyment out of literature for far too many of our young people. No wonder they turn to multi-channel digital TV, computer games and the Internet for recreation, relaxation and enjoyment. And to think we’re still one of the world’s leading nations for publishing brilliant books for young and old alike!

OECD 2013 4

What we need now is a learning revolution. We need to listen to the wise words coming from bodies such as the Confederation of British Industry that have been urging us to abolish 16+ exams in order that teachers can work more creatively in order to make learning more relevant and enjoyable. We need every secondary teacher, as well as every primary teacher, to see themselves as teachers of literacy skills as well as “subject” teachers.

We need learners to see themselves as co-creators of their own personalised learning programmes. We need to listen to learners when they tell us what THEY consider relevant and important. We need them to find their own voices and we need to take notice of what they say. We need to empower and to motivate. We even need this to happen at university level. Why should undergraduates in the digital age be passive recipients instead of active learners and co-creators of stimulating and exciting forms of learning and discovery?

None of this is rocket science. Many other countries, especially Finland, have been going down this road for many years. Which is why they are now way ahead of us in these OECD results. Finland has no 16+ exams, no centralised and government-controlled inspections, no league tables and very few students suffering from burn-out and drop-out. Finland also has  well-paid and highly qualified teachers, and a very well respected teaching profession that is trusted to promote its own continuing professional development and curriculum development.

The USA, on the other hand, has gone down the same dead-end route of 19th Century pedagogy and neo-liberal ‘reforms’ – with even more disastrous consequences.

We can do better, and we must do better – for the sake of all our children and for the sake of our nation. In my new role as shadow minister for education I intend to deal with realities and not with fantasies, deceptions and lies. A future Labour government will break with the bad old days of misguided aims, and no proper vision for our learners beyond mere academic success. Our young people deserve better than this from our education system.

Our apiration must be to come top of these OECD tables for literacy, numeracy, ICT skills, life skills and core work skills. Nothing else will do. Our young people deserve it and our future prosperity as a nation demands it.”

Come on, Tristram. You can do it!

OECD 2013 2

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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3 Responses to Finally we have them: the OECD’s first ‘Adult PISA’ results

  1. Karen Wan says:

    Reblogged this on The Enchanting Adventure and commented:
    This are some OECD results that we should be concerned about in terms of adult literacy in America . . .


  2. Karen Wan says:

    These figures don’t surprise me unfortunately. Being from the U.S., I would say it’s more than the education system at work with the decline in literacy in our country, though the education system of course is charged with fixing these numbers.

    When I was in my twenties, I had a seven month work assignment at IBM in Germany. Ever since that time in 1989, I felt the U.S. culture had so much to learn from Europe in general. These latest OECD numbers confirm my beliefs that the culture and educational system in many European countries and Japan have some things to teach Americans. I have tried to teach my children to be aware of what is going in other countries, and I ended up putting them in private schools so that they would receive the broadest education possible.

    I’m afraid that the U.S. culture on the whole has been so focused on capitalism and greed for the last several decades that quality of life issues like literacy, awareness of world affairs and even vacation time have gone undeveloped. Americans supposedly work more hours than any country in the world, yet the standard of living for the average American has declined significantly in the last 10 years in particular.

    You are right to point out that the U.S. has bigger problems than England. I hope that positive change is possible through improved education systems. However, I believe a changed culture will probably need to come first, at least in the United States. At this point, our government is closed down because the Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on almost anything it seems. If it doesn’t start up soon we’ll have bigger issues that literacy to worry about. But perhaps, literacy is what is lacking in our congress! 🙂


    • 3D Eye says:

      Many thanks, Karen, for this comment. We take a great interest in what’s happening in the USA and are avid readers of many excellent US education blogs such as and

      Thanks as ever for your continuing interest in 3D Eye and in our efforts to raise important issues concerning wellbeing, education, and the rights of children and young people.

      We take great interest in what’s happening within the US political scene, since whatever happens in America has such a great impact around the world. We’re very aware of the desperate struggle to overcome four decades or more of relentless neo-liberal ‘reforms’ to the economy and to education. As you point out, this has led to a long-term decline in most people’s standard of living, alongside of the promotion of highly unethical forms of capitalism within which greed and self-interest appear to be the strongest values. We have a similar situation in Britain, so we know very well what this has done to the values that people live by or are surrounded by. It’s been tragic for Democrats and for your president that your electoral system is rigged in favour of Republican control of the House – regardless of the fact that a majority of votes went to Democrat representatives. It’s even more tragic that the Tea Party faction is able to exercise so much power and influence.

      Our hope must be that some sorts of citizens’ movement that includes within it the voices of young people will one day be the force that brings change to what happens in our schools. Unfortunately at this time a majority of parents seem to have been coerced into thinking that exam success is all that really matters in education. We hope that this OECD research will help to change opinions. Young people need and deserve skills for life, and not simply academic capability and success. Far too many of our young people have wasted their school years simply being drilled and coached for exams instead of being led into enthusiasm for reading and capable users of everyday maths.

      Perhaps the progressive changes that are taking place within the education systems of several East Asian countries will set a positive example for the UK and the USA to consider. The fact that China is also undertaking a gradual and progressive revolution in its education system is also tremendously important.

      Many thanks for reblogging this piece. We’re very much looking forward to hearing more about your book, and indeed to buying copies!


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