There has been a steady critique of the functional illiterate discourse since IALS (see for example Hamilton and Barton 2000, Levine 1982, Maddox et al. 2011, Payne 2006), which we will not repeat here. Nor does this paper go into country comparisons. On the release of the results of the Survey of Adult Skills (OECD 2013a), much media attention was given to these – the position of countries relative to the other participating countries in terms of performance in the literacy assessments.
However, comparison of performance in literacy between different countries is of limited use. Rather, in this paper we make the observation that all countries have a sizeable adult population with literacy needs. And for our discussion of literacy as supply and demand what matters less is the relative size of each country’s own population of adults with poor literacy and numeracy as measured in large scale national or international assessments such as leo or PIAAC, or what a country’s average performance is against comparator countries, and more on understanding the particular characteristics of those who performed poorly in these surveys.
Analysis of data from the 2010 German Level-One Study (Grotlüschen and Riekmann 2011) found 7.5 million “functionally illiterate” adults (i. e. scoring at Alpha levels 1–3) between the ages of 18 to 64 in Germany: 14 % of the working age population. A further 25 % of the working age population in Germany (13.3 million people) had poor writing skills, and poor spelling in particular. These figures were far higher than was thought, with previous estimates of 4 million Germans with functional illiteracy.
A similar picture emerges from the Survey of Adult Skills. Data from PIAAC show that a significant proportion of the adult population in all participating countries performed poorlyFootnote 2 in the literacy assessments. Across the whole sample 15.5 % of adults, between one in six and one in seven, scored at or below Level 1 in literacy. The size of the group differs between countries. Italy (27.7 %), Spain (27.5 %), France (21.6 %) and Poland (18.8 %) have substantially higher proportions of adults who scored at or below Level 1 compared to the average. However, even those countries that appeared to “do well” in the survey, such as Finland (10.6 %), the Slovak Republic (11.6 %), the Netherlands (11.7 %) and the Czech Republic (11.8 %), have a large number of adults of working age with poor skills in literacy (Grotlüschen et al. 2016, p. 19).
Crucially, however, while those who scored at or below Level 1 in literacy are more likely than the rest of the adult population to exhibit certain characteristics, the difference between those who scored at or below Level 1 and the rest of the adult population is a question of degree rather than one of clear differentiation. For example, those with poor literacy are more likely than the rest of the adult population to have not completed upper secondary level education and they are also more likely to have been born in a country other than the country in which they took the test. However, while they are more likely than the rest of the adult population to exhibit these characteristics, the majority of them do not. Indeed, 65 % completed upper secondary (and 9 % completed tertiary); and 62 % were born in the country in which they took the test. Or, to take another example, while adults who scored at Level 1 and below in literacy are more likely than adults at higher levels to be unemployed, they are, nevertheless, much more likely to be employed than unemployed. 56 % of those who scored at or below Level 1 in PIAAC are in employment and only 10 % are unemployed, as compared to 8 % of those who scored at Level 2 and 3 % of those who scored at Levels 4/5 (Grotlüschen et al. 2016, p. 133).
In other words, neither the leo. study nor PIAAC reveal a homogenous group of adults with low literacy skills. Instead, they reveal great variation in the characteristics of this group, both within and across countries. That such a sizeable proportion of the population is measured as having lower than functional skills in literacy demonstrates the potential size of the challenges countries face in improving the literacy levels of their adult population. This is compounded by the heterogeneous nature of this population of adults, meaning that, when seeking to increase the supply of basic skills among the adult population, there is no simple, clear target for policy makers to aim at.
Our understanding of this “functionally illiterate” population may be further complicated by our knowledge of adults who join adult basic skills classes. To take Germany as an example: comparison between the results of the leo. study and the representative learner study “AlphaPanel”,Footnote 3 which contains data on adult learning in Germany, shows that learners on adult basic education courses are more likely to be unemployed, to suffer from poorer health, and are far more likely to have had a negative experience of school than the whole population. This is a picture that will be familiar to those who work in adult basic education in England and other countries where there are many learners who share these characteristics. More importantly, what these data indicate is that, while there is overlap, the functionally illiterate population and the adult literacy learner population are not the same. If our understanding of the low-proficiency population is less than accurate, there is a danger that stereotypes may inform policy in the area of adult basic education (Grotlüschen et al. 2016, p. 3). The view that adults with low literacy and numeracy are predominantly unemployed, poorly educated or from immigrant or low socio-economic status backgrounds means that governments may target literacy training at those adults who are seen as being within the most at-risk groups: migrants, the unemployed or those without secondary education. However, this risks ignoring the needs of large numbers of adults who also need to improve their skills. This is compounded by the fact that those with poor literacy skills are already less likely to engage in learning. While the overall average participation rate in adult education is 46 % among the whole population, only one in three of those who scored at or below Level 1 in literacy had participated in adult education in the 12 months prior to the survey of adult skills (Grotlüschen et al. 2016, p. 142).