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19th Jan 2019

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Education report to 'scare' EU ministers into action

  • Belgium (Flanders), the Czech republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden and the UK were part of the study (Photo: Night Owl City)

Policy-makers are hoping a first-ever assessment of education standards across EU states will "scare the dickens" out of politicians as vast differences in standards and quality are revealed between countries.

The study on literacy, numeracy and IT skills, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based economic club, and the European Commission on Tuesday (8 October) contains a "goldmine" of information about 17 EU states and six other countries, said Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD.

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It reveals that a secondary education in the Netherlands and Finland will equip you with better literacy skills than a university degree in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and the UK.

A direct comparison of reading skills put Finnish adults (16-65 year olds) at the top of EU rankings, followed by the Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia.

Italy trails when it comes to literacy skills but it is kept company by Spain, France and Poland.

The UK contains the highest range of literacy skills among EU countries, while your reading level is likely to be the same wherever you live in the more equitable Slovakia and Czech republic.

Overall, the survey showed that a fifth of adults in Ireland, France, Poland and the UK have low literacy or numeracy skills. This rises to almost a third of adults in Spain and Italy.

Almost a fifth of adults have no computer experience in Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Poland and Slovakia, while people's social background is likely to affect their education skills in Poland, Germany Italy and the UK.

"A good system should delink the background of the family with the performance of the student. A bad system condemns you to be determined in your performance as a student or a worker for life," said Gurria.

The Netherlands comes out top among EU countries for lifelong learning. The UK excels at making effective use of its talented adults.

"These graphs ... are meant to be alarming and to worry the dickens out of those ministers of education," said Gurria.

EU education commissioner Androulla Vassilliou said member states "should not become defensive but open up and become self-critical."

The study, carried out between August 2011 and March 2012, also emphasizes the link between the quality and level of education and job prospects. It shows that the median hourly wage of workers with high levels of literacy is 60 percent higher than those with just basic reading levels.

"Our study confirms that knowledge has a lot to do with your destiny," said Gurria, making reference to the EU's ongoing efforts to bring down its record high unemployment rates.

Those with poor literacy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed, but also more likely to perceive themselves as "objects rather than actors in political processes" and are less likely to trust others.

"This is very important. This is about behaviour and your contribution to society. We can't develop fair and inclusive policies if a lack of proficiency in basic skills prevents people from fully participating in society," Gurria noted.

UK and US - unchanged in 40 years

He reserved special mention for the UK and the US, saying that while the jobs market is getting more and more competitive, Americans and Britons are entering it with the same literacy skills as those retiring from it.

"That means they haven't moved an inch in 40 years. This is a massive wake-up call," he said.

He pointed to Korea as a good example of turning things around. While older Koreans are among the lowest performing groups in the surveyed countries, young Koreans are the best, second only to Japanese people.

They achieved this in just a "generation and half" or about 40 years. "This is about how countries progress," said Gurria.

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