Virginia Beardshaw I CAN CEO Eds

I CAN CEO, Virginia Beardshaw: Our thoughts on OECD Skills Outlook 2013

On Wednesday (9th October) the OECD did something new, interesting and important.

It published its first ever report on basic skills in the 24 richest countries in the world. For the purposes of the report, basic skills are defined as ‘literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in technology rich environments’.

The OECD findings for the UK were shocking.

Young people in the UK rank amongst the five lowest performing countries for both literacy and numeracy.

What’s more they are the only cohort of young people in the developed economies to have skill levels lower than their parents’ generation.

Dr Schleichler, the report’s author, is blunt:  ‘Young people in the UK are considerably behind their peers in other countries. In fact, England is the only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest age group.’

Tough stuff. And not to be ignored.

Politicians shifted instantly into blame game mode. Totally predictable inter-party wrangling ensured.

So far, so unconstructive.

At I CAN, my reactions were different.

The first was to lament OECD’s narrow focus  on literacy and numeracy.  Leaving out communication skills is wrong in the 21st century when they matter more than ever. Employers consistently put poor communication skills at the top of their complaints about skills gaps in the workforce. So why not measure them in a study like this? Zeroing in on reading and numbers to the exclusion of language is Victorian – unrelated to the 21st century world in which we live.

But my second reaction was one of sad recognition.

Only on Monday I was in a primary school in Kirkby – one of the poorest areas in England – where the Head spoke despairingly about the language levels of the children who arrived in her reception class this September. Almost all of them had serious problems with their language levels, and were unready to learn at school.

Ofsted’s 2012 Annual Report found that 34% of children are not working securely in communication, language and literacy by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage. This increases to 50 % or more in disadvantaged areas.

Effective speech, language and communication skills are the foundation for other key life skills:  literacy, numeracy, positive relationships and regulation of behaviour and emotions.  Young people with good communication skills have a wider range of life chances.

So the OECD findings, shocking though they were, sadly were no surprise.

Nor was one of its key recommendations, to ‘make sure all children have a strong start in education’ through ’investing in high quality early childhood education and initial schooling, particularly for children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.’

At I CAN we back that to the hilt since to be high quality early education has to have a strong language component, as per the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Maybe, just maybe, the OECD report will help the powers that be look more deeply at the reasons beneath the UK’s poor performance and recognise language as fundamental to learning, literacy and numeracy.

To read the OECD report, visit