Literacy levels vary across countries and between vocational education and training (VET) and general education graduates at upper-secondary levels, according to first findings from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) published in October. The findings also show that, unsurprisingly, the young are more literate, but that proficiency in literacy peaks at around 30 years of age.


Literacy skills of VET graduates differ significantly across countries

Across all the 24 countries (and sub-national regions) participating in the survey the mean literacy score  for young adults aged 16-29 whose highest level is vocationally oriented upper-secondary education is 273 out of a possible 500 (see Table). In some European countries such as Finland, or the Netherlands literacy scores are significantly above the OECD mean for this group, while in Spain, Poland are Ireland they are below (see Figure). These differences matter. In Finland, for instance, literacy skills of young graduates from general upper secondary programmes are as good as those of university graduates in Italy.

Definition of literacy and proficiency levels

Literacy is defined as the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve one's goals and develop one’s knowledge and potential. It does not include writing. Adults at Level 1 or below can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to that in the question or instruction, or understand basic vocabulary.

Literacy is divided into five proficiency levels and a score up to 500 points. The OECD regards 275, between Levels 2 and 3 as the cut-off point. 

Differences between VET and general education

Literacy rates of young adults aged 16-29 with general upper-secondary education tend to be higher than those with VET.  To some extent this is to be expected. Most potential university candidates tend to choose general education rather than VET as their path to higher education. VET, as well as providing high-level skills for the workplace, also plays a key role in integrating the less able into the labour market.

At upper-secondary level, higher literacy rates for young graduates from general education compared to VET graduates are found in all countries, but the gap varies considerably with notable differences between non-European and some European countries. Differences in literacy rates between young graduates tend to be significantly smaller in Canada, Japan, Korea and the US, than they are in some European countries that separate vocational and general learning tracks at upper-secondary level such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland.

Still, some countries, such as Finland and the Netherlands, also show relatively high literacy scores for young graduates of both types of programmes. In others, such as Spain, Ireland and Poland, graduates from both types of programmes tend to have relatively low scores. This is similar for some non-European countries. In the United States, the score of both groups is relatively low, while in Australia, both groups’ score is relatively high. This raises the question of the extent to which having separate learning tracks influences skill gaps. There is no simple answer to this question and this is where Cedefop’s work comes in.

Despite the lower literacy levels of VET graduates, there is evidence that they have a faster and smoother into transition into work compared to general education graduates, particularly in countries where work-based learning is a strong component of VET programmes. VET may compensate for some skills disadvantages of youth by giving them better access to employment.

Figure: Mean literacy proficiency in European countries for adults aged 16-29 whose highest level of education is vocationally oriented upper secondary

Countries are ranked in descending order of the mean literacy score of young adults aged 16-29 whose highest level of education is vocationally oriented upper secondary

OECD skills graph

The generation skills gap

Younger generations of both general and vocational upper-secondary recent graduates (aged 16-19) have higher levels of literacy than the previous cohorts (aged 20-65). Their literacy scores are closer to Level 3 on PIAAC literacy scale. This is welcome given the trends towards more skill intensive jobs at all levels.

However, not all recent upper-secondary graduates score at this level. On average across European countries, at least 25% of them can be considered as low skilled as they do not attain Level 3 on the PIAAC literacy scale. In Italy, Ireland or the UK (England/Northern Ireland) the figure is around 50%.

There are also differences in literacy skills among adults between countries.  Overall, adults over 20 who have not completed upper secondary education tend to have significantly lower literacy skills.  In nearly every European country covered by the survey, 25% or more of them have very low levels of literacy (Level 1 or below), being unable to read and understand simple instructions (see Box above).

In all the countries surveyed proficiency in literacy peaks at around 30 years of age. This reflects that most formal learning is done early in working life and that skill development in lifelong learning falls markedly with age. This is worrying for Europe which has an ageing workforce that still needs to keep up with technological and organisational developments.

Just the start

The survey on adult skills allows for further investigation of the relationship better skills, educational attainment and labour market success. Cedefop is committed to investigating these issues and in developing, with the OECD, new indicators on skills in VET based on PIAAC data. Cedefop will also use the PIAAC data to investigate the skill requirements of today’s jobs and skill mismatch. This will improve our understanding of how skills and qualifications affect integration in the labour market and help promote policy learning across countries.