Literacy gap between UK unemployed and those in work 'is highest in Western world'

A new study shows over half of those classified as NEETs (not in education, employment and training) are not even looking for work

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The gap in literacy skills in the UK between young people neither employed or in education and those in work is the widest of any Western nation, according to a new study.

In addition, more than half (56 per cent) of those classified as NEETs (not in education, employment and training) are not even looking for work.

Figures show the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in literacy and problem solving skills is the highest of any country covered by the study, The NEETs lag 12.5 per cent behind in literacy skills and just under 10 per cent behind when it comes to problem solving.

The survey, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, looked at the performance of more than 35 million 16 to 29-year-olds in 22 Western nations.

It warned that - in the UK - many young people categorised as NEETs were “far from the labour market not only due to their low skills but also because they are not looking for a job”. As a result, they were “under the radar” of the education system and labour market institutions.

“One in four NEETs has been unemployed for more than six months and faces risks of skills erosion,” it said. “Amongst the NEETs, a relatively high share (56 per cent) is inactive and not looking for a job.”


The UK, it added, was one of a small number of countries where the percentage of low performers in literacy and numeracy was higher for young people than “prime-age adults”, i.e over 30’s.  “Overall, young workers are almost three times more likely than prime-age workers to be unemployed,” the report said.

“One in seven young people aged 16 to 24 leave school before completing upper secondary education - which is a much higher probability than on average in OECD countries,” the report added.

“Young migrants, too, are considerably over-represented in the category of low performers compared to the average native-born.”

The report also highlighted the lack of numeracy skills of graduates coming out of university.  “The share of new graduates with low numeracy skills is the second highest after the Untied States,” it added.

It also warned that - whilst many young people in the UK worked during their studies - the work they did was often not well integrated with their education programmes. “In particular, youth studying for a vocational degree at upper secondary level seldom take up an apprenticeship,” it said.

Overall, the study said 10 per cent of new graduates had poor literacy skills and 14 per cent lacked numeracy. It described the figures as an “unacceptable waste of human potential”.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said:  “Following years of stagnation in international league tables, this Government’s relentless focus on standards is ensuring that thousands more young people are able to read, write and add up properly.

“But there is no room for complacency.  We will continue to build on this success by ensuring all young people leave school with the knowledge and skills they need to compete with their peers from across the globe.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills added: “Current employer surveys indicate very high satisfaction with the skills of UK graduates.  However, more can always be done and higher education institutions play a role in addressing any underperformance in maths.”