Surveys on adult skills
The potential often goes untapped

Reading skills are slightly below average.
Reading skills are slightly below average. | © Joujou /

The aim of the “Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies” (PIAAC) is to compare the everyday skills of adults on an international level. Josef Schrader, scientific director at the Deutsche Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (DIE) (German Institute for Adult Education), tells us why comparing adult skills internationally is not really that exciting at all and how better use could be made of the survey’s results.

Professor Schrader, when the findings of the PIAAC survey were published in October, the reaction in german media was one of disillusionment. On an international level Germany ranked only fair to middling in two of the three fields of competence.

That is true, but two perspectives have to be taken into consideration here: In the media there has been a huge focus on the international comparison aspect, with Germany ranking only average, as was the case in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey. Reading skills are slightly below average, mathematical proficiency is slightly above average. There is no international comparison for the third field of competence, technology-based problem solving, as not enough countries took part in this field. On closer inspection, however, the survey does not supply any answers to the question why Germany is only fair to middling. There was simply not enough differentiated contextual information on the various educational systems and on the learning biographies of the people participating in the survey. That is why, in my opinion, the international comparison is not so interesting. The differences among the OECD member countries that took part might well be statistically significant, but as a rule they are really quite marginal. This indicates that all these countries have established fairly similar forms of education and vocational training.

A person’s social background still plays an important role

And the second perspective?

Josef Schrader, scientific director at the the Deutsche Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (DIE) Josef Schrader, scientific director at the the Deutsche Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (DIE) | © Josef Schrader In my opinion another question is much more exciting – how do the skills relevant for everyday life differ from each other with respect to the age group, the social group or among people who have different immigration backgrounds? It is here that it becomes quite clear that the younger age groups taking part in the survey score better than the older ones and that those people coming from an immigration background have greater difficulties than those who do not. Looking at it from a national point of view we see the first indications of when and how educational programmes could or should be made available throughout the course of a person’s schooling - starting with pre-school education right through to further education. This would ensure that all the groups of people could avail themselves of the skills relevant to everyday life - skills they need to lead an independent life in our modern information and knowledge society. 

The PIAAC and CiLL Educational Surveys

The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) was initiated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with the aim of comparing the everyday basic skills of adults on an international level. In Germany 5,000 people between the ages of 16 to 65 were selected to take part in the survey and their skills were assessed by means of a household survey that was carried out from autumn 2011 until spring 2012. The survey focussed on readings skills, mathematical proficiency and technology-based problem solving. The CiLL (Competencies in Later Life) survey was a supplementary study in which these skills were also examined in the 66 - 80 age group.

What does this mean precisely?

Alongside formal education and people’s experience of work and life it is a person’s social background that still plays an important role. Further education can in fact compensate for this to a certain extent, but it is still quite difficult. What needs to be done here is to start with the early promotion of skills and early educational programmes to ensure that differences in people’s education and skills that stem from their background can be offset as early as possible. We have to start providing additional educational programmes for people from disadvantaged families.

Motivation for their everyday approach

At what point then does further education start? Almost 20 per cent of the adults lack basic skills in reading and numeracy.

The PIAAC survey confirms results from other surveys – the people who take part in further education programmes are those who already have a good education and are well integrated in the gainful employment system. Low-skilled workers, on the other hand, have hardly any access to further education programmes, which is why the differences in skill levels become greater, the older the workers become. There have been some initiatives launched in the field of educational policy that aim to extend the range of programmes focussing on basic education and literacy. For example, there is a support programme organised by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research entitled “Arbeitsplatzorientierte Alphabetisierung und Grundbildung Erwachsener” (Workplace-related Literacy and Basic Education for Adults).

In my point of view, however, surveys like PIAAC and CiLL and their findings are not communicated on a broad enough scale and are not discussed on an intense enough scale. Too little thought goes into the way the findings could be communicated, so that programme planners and teachers in the field of further education would be motivated to think about their everyday approach. This transfer process often falls by the wayside and that is why, in my opinion, the potential of these surveys often goes untapped.

Low-skilled workers, on the other hand, have hardly any access to further education programmes. Low-skilled workers, on the other hand, have hardly any access to further education programmes. | © Manfred jahreis / What ways do you see of solving this?

I think first of all that all the key players should be required to think about how transfer and communication processes could be optimised. This is, of course, also the task of the DIE - we are in fact making a special effort to be very active in this area. The sponsoring bodies and the professional associations are also involved, because they naturally have the best contact to the local players. I also think, however, that educational policy should be thinking about not just supporting such large-scale, empirical surveys, but also about ideas for projects on how the transfer of the findings can be financed and promoted.

That does not sound as if the concept of lifelong learning is already firmly rooted in society.

Lifelong learning has to be viewed in context and the traditional dividing lines between the various areas of learning have to be overcome. If, however, you look at educational policy strategies with this background in mind, in my opinion, they are still not being implemented consistently enough. Educational policy is carried out in a very diffuse way and at different ministerial levels, often quite uncoordinated. This has particularly drastic consequences for people with insufficient basic skills. It is not really clear who should be responsible for them. Is it the task of schools to make sure that these groups of people are given better instruction? Is it the task of the labour administration to work in a compensatory way, after these people have left school with hardly any skills? Or is it the task of further education? There is no coordinated educational policy strategy; it is more a series of various departments and responsible entities and more or less isolated activities. It really is a great challenge - one, however, that cannot be solved overnight.