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Nordics: Surprisingly many struggle with literacy and numeracy

Nordics: Surprisingly many struggle with literacy and numeracy

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: Björn Lindahl

The challenge facing politicians is helping two million adults who lack the necessary skills for working and social life to secure a chance to develop, says Anders Rosdahl. He is a senior research fellow at the Danish National Centre for Social Research, and the Danish representative in the network which has just presented the Nordic PIAAC report.

The idea behind the Nordic PIAAC report is to compare adult populations in the Nordic countries in order to assess their literacy, numeracy and their problem solving skills using PCs. The OECD report focuses on more than 20 countries, while the Nordic report compares five countries: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Estonia. 

“What’s most striking is how similar the Nordic countries are when we compare the populations’ basic skills,” says Anders Rosdahl. Estonia is to some degree different from the other Nordic countries, but still scores above the OECD average. 

Nordic countries generally score highly within the OECD. Finland is a clear winner on numeracy, Denmark is slightly below the OECD average while the other Nordic countries are between the two and above the average. All of the Nordic countries are above the OECD average when it comes to numeracy skills. Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are top scorers in problem solving, assessing information using IT or working with e-mail. 

“The Nordic countries are small and dependent on international trade. If the skills were lower here than in other countries we would struggle to compete internationally," says says Anders Rosdahl, who also underlines that basic skills are important for the individual to function in society. 

"There is a reason for why we are particularly interested in this. Basic skills are necessary for learning and if you want to have contact with authorities you need to be able to read the information they provide.”  

Two million have weak literacy skills

There is still a relatively large number of people with weak basic literacy, numeracy and IT problem solving skills. Nearly two million people have weak basic literacy skills.

“You could say that they should have been lifted to a higher level, but this is such a gigantic task that it would take many years to achieve it, which means it is out of the question. It would be far too expensive and we wouldn’t be able to reach everybody. 

“What you could try to do,” thinks Anders Rosdahl, “is to try to identify the people concerned when you meet them, for instance in the job seeker systems at job centers, or among the unemployed.

“A lack of basic skills can lead to problems accessing the labour market. You also find people who struggle in the education system and social system and not least in workplaces, whose problems are linked to weak skills. When you meet people with weak skills you need to try to help them where they are, focusing on the problems they are facing.”

The survey also shows a higher prevalence of poor skills among older people than among young people, there are more people with poor skills among those with low levels of education and more immigrants than non-immigrants have poor skills. 

“So the poor skills are not arbitrarily distributed. We still conclude that even though poor skills are unequally divided among the populations, you find people with poor skills nearly everywhere in society. That’s why it is necessary to look for poor skills in all walks of life and to offer help where there is a need.”

Pisa a good indicator of adult skills

Denmark has compared the Pisa 2000 results to PIAAC 2012. The literary skills among 15 year olds who took part in the Pisa survey in the year 2000 have been compared to their results as 27 year olds from PIAAC 2012. 

“There is a strong correlation,” says Anders Rosdahl. The better your literacy skills at school, the better you are 12 years later. This means the ground which is prepared at home and in school has a long-term effect. But the results also show you must use your skills in order to develop them further.  

“Some young people’s literacy skills develop better than others’. Those who do not use their skills become weaker. People who get an education will for instance develop better literacy skills than those who don’t. Those who work develop their skills better than those who don’t work. The ones who develop their literacy skills the least are those who go through long periods of unemployment or illness. So if you use your skills in working life or take an education, the skills improve. But if you are long term unemployed or ill, your skills deteriorate compared to your peers from the same generation.”

16 percent of Danish adults between 16 and 65 have poor literacy skills. The number for Finland is 11 percent and in the other Nordic countries 13 percent.  Altogether this means more than two million people with poor literacy skills. When it comes to numeracy skills, 13 percent score poorly in Finland and 14 to 15 percent score poorly in the other Nordic countries. In total 10 percent of adults aged 16 to 65 have poor literacy and numeracy skills, with Denmark top of the list and Finland at the bottom. People with poor literacy and numeracy skills are also overrepresented among those who score poorly in problem solving. 

Skills and age

Basic skills like literacy appear to deteriorate when people reach 35 to 40 years of age. The reasons why are much debated, says Anders Rosdahl. One possible explanation offered by him is that older generations generally are less educated than younger ones. Another reason could be the individual’s actual life. There might be a biological  explanation — the older you get the weaker your skills because of a reduced mental capacity. But there might also be a social explanation; employees and employers might be less interested in investing in workers’ further education when they reach older age, for instance.

“But if you look at famous conductors, they often carry on into a very old age, so some skills can also increase with age. This s complicated. Not all skills deteriorate with age. You might well acquire new skills in old age if you have the opportunity and motivation. The OECD’s PIAAC survey shows that the Nordic countries value adult and further education.”

Over or under education?

One of the chapters in the Nordic report looks at over education. The Nordic and many other countries have seen a rise in education levels in recent decades. Some now ask whether this is necessary or whether many have a better education than their jobs demand. The report assesses that at least 15 to 20 percent of people in work are over educated.

“This assessment is uncertain. We need more research in order to properly assess whether there is real over education with social economic losses as a consequence,” says Anders Rosdahl.

The PIAAC survey also asks: Do you feel you lack certain qualifications in order to perform your job in a good way? In Denmark 24 percent of over 30 year olds answered yes, in Estonia 48 percent said the same while the number for the rest of the countries was between 31 and 36 percent. So if we are to believe what people say, there is a great need for skills development among adults in work.

“If I was asked the same question, I would have answered yes because I feel I need to learn more about several issues. This does not mean you do a bad job, but that the need for learning is there.

“Skills improvement costs money, but you should consider whether it is a good thing also for employers. Many workers would very much like to learn more, and employers should be aware of this," says Anders Rosdahl.

Social consequences of good basic skills

The Nordic PIAAC survey demonstrates a high degree of correlation between basic skills and social trust. In this area Estonia stands apart from the other four countries. Social trust, voluntary work and the feeling of having a say in political issues all feature lower in Estonia than in the other Nordic countries, where results are more similar.

Anders Rosdahl

Anders Rosdahl

has been the editor of the report. He is a Senior Research Fellow at The Danish National Centre for Social Research.

Ann-Carlott Larsson

Ann-Charlott Larsson

has been the project leader for the PIAAC survey in Sweden and has been the coordinator of the Nordic PIAAC network.



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