The culture that is England

England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In a stark assessment of the success and failure of the 720-million-strong adult workforce across the wealthier economies, the economic thinktank warns that in England, adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than 16- to 24-year-olds at foundation levels of literacy and numeracy. The survey did not include people from Scotland or Wales.

The OECD study also finds that a quarter of adults in England have the maths skills of a 10-year-old. About 8.5 million adults, 24.1% of the population, have such basic levels of numeracy that they can manage only one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers or reading graphs. This is worse than the average in the developed world, where an average of 19% of people were found to have a similarly poor skill base.

When the results within age groups are compared across participating countries, older adults in England score higher in literacy and numeracy than the average among their peers, while younger adults show some of the lowest scores for their age group.

Here is further information, via Annie Lowrey.


We'd give them a comprehensive education
to make up for their comprehensive education.

From Yes Minister (Or possibly Prime Minister).

All in an effort to close the British-African achievement gap. British parents don't have the courage or opportunities to escape this downward trend for their children that some in America do. British children score at the top when they first enter school then are surpassed by every group when they leave secondary school at 17-18 years old.

In 1951, 4.2% of the UK was foreign-born. In 2010, 11.9% was foreign born. That could be contributing to the lower literacy/numeracy of younger folks in the UK.

Native born (still mostly ethnic British) in the UK seem OK based on PISA measures, comparable to Scandinavian native born, even if they could no doubt do better, based on the probable performance of White Canadians, New Zealanders and probably USians (and probably other Europeans could as well).

It's really a shame that this data isn't available in a more explorable form that splits out both age and foreign born status at the same time (rather than separate mean difference breakdowns), to determine how much is due to education becoming at least relatively less effective in England vs demographic change.

Actually, looking again, there is a data explorer tool available (, which does allow this cross-tabulation of variables to make comparisons age sets, between native born and foreign born persons and those of these categories with native born and foreign born parents. - for an excel spreadsheet report of this for a sample of countries.

It does still seem like the trend isn't meaningfully different after these controls, which seems curious in light of this not being reported under PISA.

So we can't just blame it on the chavs?


Australia has more than twice the UK's percentage of foreign born population and it's doing all right, getting good grades, future's so bright, it's gotta wear shades.

Australia and Canada use points systems to choose the most promising immigrants. On the last PISA, they were the only countries where first and second generation immigrant students averaged higher than natives.

How are programmes such as Obamacare supposed to be implemented when such a large number of adults have not reached basic levels of numeracy and literacy?

Or Geography.

Or perhaps your problem is history. Please see:

I doubt this is what the poster was referring to, but the USA did much worse than the UK in the survey.

Slightly to the side:

England is among a handful of nations where social background determines reading skills. Along with Germany, Italy, Poland and the United States, the children of parents with low levels of education in England have "significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education".

Regarding Germany, the obvious (ignorant?) guess is that this is caused by the separation between Gymnasium schools and the rest. But Germany is also admired as a country where blue collar workers get good, skilled jobs; at least partly because they get taught skills at school.

I was just about to qoute that section, in part because of relevant it is to such discussions.

Especially in terms of how societies decide to educate their members. The traditional three tiered school system in Germany is fading, but one of the more striking articles in Die Zeit during the later 90s immigration debates was one that showed how students that were 'recommended' for the bottom tier (Hauptschule) and the top tier (Gymnasium) were indistinguishable in terms of a set of test scores. That is, the child of someone whose parents had gone to Gymnasium were recommended for Gynmasium, while someone with immigrant parents was recommended for Hauptschule. The objective measure provided by such testing were absolutely worthless in predicting who would go further in school. However, family background provided a near perfect correlation.

In Germany, social mobility was helped by the massive shuffling of cards that two world wars created. However, the tendency for Beamte to ensure themselves and their posterity a central role in whatever form of government is currently in place remains something to depend on. Most especially by such time tested methods as ensuring that perfectly competent outsiders are excluded from consideration before they even enter the 5th grade.

Yeah. Actual social mobility means that the upper middle class has the frightful experience of watching their children revert to the average in the social ranking, however. Once basic nutrition is met, a parent's wealth can do remarkably little to aid a twelve-year-old's exam scores.

This is the actual table from the OECD study.

As you can see, England/Northern Ireland is indeed the only country where young adults are less literate than old adults (its dot for the age column is slightly negative). However, the result is not statistically significant (see the footnote!).

For those complaining about immigrants, the study does in fact consider native/foreign-born status, and the adjusted (dot marker) regression takes migrant status into account.

(cont: and, as you can see, merely comparing means and then adjusting for migrant status doesn't visibily change the results for the England/NI group, which suggests that the flow of migrants might not actually be very different from Britain's own native-born age/literacy composition. Why not? A great very many British migrants are highly-skilled economic migrants, not refugee/family migrants).

The note at the bottom of the table you link to says: "Adjusted differences are based on a regression model and take account of differences associated with the following variables: age, gender, education, immigration and language backgroud, socio-economic background, and type of occupation." So a lot of things apart from migrant status are mixed up here.

There's another bit of that note in the original document which is cut off in your link: "For more detailed regression results, including for each category of each variable included in the model, see Table B3.17 (L) in Annex B".

According to that table (p.445), "Native born, native language" has a literacy score of 288.0 in England, "Native born, foreign language" 277.9, "Foreign born, native language" 276.4 and "Foreign born, foreign language" 253.7.

I'm not totally clear what these numbers actually refer to, and the standard error in most cases seems to be given as 0.0 (which seems questionable). There also seems to be a similar pattern among the same groups in other countries, so an explanation for the unique English situation couldn't entirely be a matter of immigration.

But anyway, there does seem to be a connection between migration and literacy, contrary to your argument.

Oh, certainly. I will take it as obvious that migrants are, on average, less literate in the domestic language than natives. This is supported by the table. A surge of migrants decreases average literacy.

But to motivate a change in literacy by age due to increased migration, you would have to argue that the inflow of migrants are themselves highly illiterate amongst the young relative to the old, as compared to the native population. This is unlikely to be the case for substantive skilled migration, since these tend to be fresh graduates or otherwise highly-skilled young professionals. In contrast, unskilled family migrants are older.

The question is whether poorly-integrated 2nd generation immigrants are numerous enough to overwhelm the inflow of yet more young skilled professionals. On the whole, it seems to balance out. Otherwise, the regression would probably be different from the means.

See: our left wing - unlike yours - can deliver on their promises. In the sixties they said they'd ruin the schools, and they have.

And now that it is necessary to pay thousands of pounds a year to study at an English university, this will undoubtedly show those independent minded Scots what a mistake it is to provide free university education to students. Except those from England, of course. Which just makes sense, since it seems future English students will need remedial classes anyways, if the trend continues.

Just thousands, not tens of thousands, of pounds? Sounds like a steal compared to US schools.

A British teacher told me some years ago that the standards in many English schools are going down. The OECD study confirms that. The reason she gave for declining standards: when she started teaching, she could beat the hell out of her students. Its now illegal. So barbarism promoted scholastic standards in England?

No, proper punishment allowed teachers to maintain control of classrooms, which promotes teachers being able to actually teach, rather than spend their days putting kids in various corners, groups, and offices. If a whipping is "barbarism", then so is most of human civilization. Only in the past twenty years has it become un-PC to use the most obvious and effective method of child discipline. I maintain, contrary to most of my profession, that physical punishment when applied properly is still the most effective method of control and teaching available. All the touchy-feely theories haven't worked very well. Pain works on everyone.

What happens when the kids hit back?

Good students are terrified of a phone call home or a visit with the dean. But today, many schools don't allow the removal of bad students from the classroom and phone calls home aren't successful when there is a language barrier or the parents use disposable phones.

Discipline is one of the biggest reasons why teachers can't teach. The kids are rowdy, disrespectful and full of sugar. Additionally, special education kids are housed with non special education students - which is bad for all students.

Personally, I think one of the biggest difficulties in educating kids is breaking them from the myriad of distracting entertainment options. Hundreds of television channels, addictive video games, Internet pornography, smart phones, YouTube - etc. When I was a kid we had toys, sports, radio and 7 television channels. You weren't missing out on anything amazing by doing your homework. Now - kids (and adults) have so much world class (and addictive) entertainment that it's hard to motivate people to put the nonsense aside and do something educational. Average is over.

US readers usually equate "England" with "Britain", but the "United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland", includes among others, the ancient Kingdom of Scotland, the figures for which were not included in this specific set of statistics.
No Scottish student pays fees to go to university in Scotland, though English students pay full fees to go to university in Scotland, and a fair number do come to Scotland.

Is this really surprising when the most common baby name is Mohammed? Young people must skew toward immigrant or 2G, and would face typical challenges.

Don't use name popularity as a proxy for population numbers. Muslim parents name their kids "mohammed" at a rate far exceeding any single name in most cultures. Therefore it's relatively simple for a small number of muslims to make that the "most popular name". It's why in arabic everyone gets twenty or thirty nicknames and titles appended to their name (Haji ibn Al, al Shakhs, al Hisi bin Laden, etc.), because damn near half of them are named "mohammed". Immigration may well be at the root of some problems, but names aren't a great proxy for diagnosing that.

I saw for Canada that scores for the 16-24 year old group lag scores for the total adult population. Canada has also been steadily falling down the PISA rankings.

As a parent who had children in Canadian schools I'm not surprised. The decline in rigor and stultifying dedication to social values and politically correct thinking was one reason we left for Singapore.

Our kids are now at least two years ahead of their peers back in Canada.

Absolutely true. My kid is a straight-A student who is both horribly bored in high school, and totally frustrated by the politically-correct pablum being stuffed down the kid's throats these days instead of real learning. His social studies class spends its time watching propaganda videos from Greenpeace about the evils of globalization and capitalism, instead of learning something useful. Last week they watched a video on Naomi Klein's "No Labels" book, which claims that corporations are using advertising to destroy 3rd world culture and turn noble people into crass consumers of international conglomerates.

But by far the biggest problem is teacher quality. Teachers here are so well paid and their unions so powerful that once you have a full-time teaching gig, nothing's getting you to leave it. Short of child molestation, nothing can get you fired There are some great teachers, but there are some incredibly awful teachers. The success of a child's school career is almost random - if you manage to get lucky and your schedule causes you to avoid the bad teachers, you'll do great. If you get unlucky and have to suffer through more than one of two of these teachers, it will scar you forever and leave you lagging your peers dramatically. Some of his classes are so unruly the 'good' kids are often excused to go study by themselves in the hallway or library to get away from the clamor. Some teachers have no control of their classes at all, while others rule with an iron fist - not to teach, but so they can sit at their desks and read while the students face forward silently with nothing to do.

I still have my old high school math and science texts from the 1970's, and I've compared them with what is taught now. While the subject matter is roughly the same, the material today is much more superficial. More disturbingly, a lot of the material is now tied up with ideology. The science curriculum is filled with units on sustainability, environmental hazards, corporate pollution, anti-nuclear nonsense, etc. Ideology is taught as fact without even a mention that there are often other points of view, and the ideological indoctrination is coming at the expense of other science topics. Last year, my kid was looking forward to the 'space' section at the end of the science curriculum. Unfortunately, the environment section went long, so they had to cut way back on the space stuff. They did keep one section: A debate over whether rocket exhaust hurts the environment.

In that same class, the kids were asked to stand up and say what they wanted to be when they graduated school. My kid said he wanted to be an engineer or a space scientist. This was met with a disapproving cluck from the teacher and the question, "With your gifts, why don't you want to do something socially redeeming with your life?" The next kid wanted to be 'an environmentalist' to the teacher's visible approval. My kid was very upset about that.

Last year my kid was looking forward to learning about WWII in social studies, as it was one of the major units and he's interested in it. When they finally got to the unit, do you know what they were taught? Not the causes of the war. Not the countries involved, or how they fought or how it was resolved. Not the battles, treaties, declarations, or diplomacy. No, what they learned was how WWII affected the rights of women in Canada, and some sob stories about young female refugees and how they found a home in Canada. Actual material about the war itself? Almost zero.

"Naomi Klein’s “No Labels” book"

Naomi Klein, David Frum. Who can tell the difference these days?

Exactly. That, plus Tarrou's comment above. Until someone addresses this reality, any effort to "explain" poor performance is inherently calumnous.

In a survey comparing competency in something in different countries, one country will come out on top and another at the bottom. This is evidence to support of whatever the reader already believed.

Wouldn't one normally expected older people to be more literate and numerate than younger people, all things being considered, the older people having had more time to practice?

Likely though the average school in the UK is less effective than it used to be at instilling basic literacy and numeracy. I think one of the most viewed TED conference videos of all time is Sir Ken Robinson's one on schooling. It is classic British sentimentality combined with sophistry, about how schools are bad to kill creativity. Teachers love his views and they are very influential. But most people can't learn basic skills in any other way other than rote and repetition. However, in today's world this is probably not an issue, The vast majority of people are not working at the technological frontier, they don't need these kind of skills anyway. Probably better overall for utility if we let them have a nice time at school when they are young. Smart people are going to do well anyway, and they are the ones driving technology forward. The UK has just as many smart people as it used to.

I'm one of the smart ones. Woo hoo. 63 yrs old and got a brilliant education in England back in the 50's and 60's. Back then ppl read books (not much else available) and did arithmetic without the help of a calculator. I still do.

Arithmetic is all you need to keep your household finances in check. However, linear algebra and other elegant toys used in research are pretty difficult to run without electronic computers.

And yet kids try to use hand calculators ("graphics calculator") for that stuff. And for anything simpler, they still reach for their hand-calculator even when they are sitting in front of a Matlab window.

State sponsored promotion of dysgenic breeding coming home to roost? When you pay the least able and most irresponsible money to stay home and have children you get a lot of children who aren't very able or responsible. Compounding that when you take money from the most able and responsible, they put off having children, because, as people who are more likely to be responsible, they prefer to feel secure before having children. Further the most able and responsible put off having children until later ages which reduces the quality of their children. This is why, barring genetic engineering, we're still in the Malthusian trap.

You seem to have been reading Generation F.

Maybe he saw the movie Idiocracy:

The Wikipedia entry is more informative.

If it shows up on free over-the-air TV, I shall have to watch it. Probably not likely that will happen though, and with the imminent demise of broadcast TV I might never see it. A pity.

You're not missing anything - it is a terrible film

Seems somewhat retarded of a theory since this affect is only visible in under 24s, and older generations steadily show a pattern of increasing competence with younger generations.

England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults

Even more immigration to England is sure to solve that problem. It's just a temporary bump - we need to keep going to ensure England's prosperity. Diversity is strength!

Comparing the British white working class to their distant cousins in the U.S., the Brits appear to have higher higher rates of crime in burglary and drunken beat-downs (although not in homicide, due to gun control). They also have higher illegitimacy rates.

There is so much more to the story. You can learn a lot starting here:

Tests like these discriminate against people who's skills just lie in different areas. This math-shaming goes along the lines of fat shaming and should be outlawed just like racism and anti-feminism.

Tests like these proof the cultural supremacy of capitalists and conservatives.

Yes, the skills to take from the system, to steal, to blow stuf up ....

All things in existence are tested one way or another. Excuses wont do ... So what if these wogs dont measure up ... The task is to EDUCATE THEM.

Then test them to make sure they have the skills to survives ... Like conservatives do. That is the kindest thin we can do ... Not lowering the bar for them.

Incentives matter. Have you seen the English welfare system? It is out of control. Plus, in the classrooms of below average inner city schools there is basically no learning going on - well at least from all the reports I have heard. I wonder how much this is down to immigration. I mean the number of kids for whom English is not their first language would have skyrocketed. I remember the reports many years ago about bus loads of refugees from Albania coming into schools and just overwhelming the TESL facilities at the school.

Another point that I would be interested in is the proportion of school students in each country that live in the inner city or city fringe.

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