S’pore adults lagging behind in literacy, maths: OECD

S’pore adults lagging behind in literacy, maths: OECD
TODAY file photo.
Ranked 26th in literacy, 24th in numeracy, 8th in using digital tools among 34 countries
Published: 5:00 PM, June 28, 2016
Updated: 4:05 PM, June 29, 2016

SINGAPORE — The Republic’s 15-year-olds may regularly come out top in mathematics, science and problem-solving compared with those from other countries, but the picture is less rosy when it comes to adults, especially older ones. 

Singapore’s first-ever participation in an adult skills study administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that a larger-than-average proportion of adults here have poor literacy and numeracy skills, compared with other countries in the study.

This is despite adults here being placed among the best in using digital tools to solve problems.   

The Survey of Adult Skills, administered by the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), showed that more than one in four adults here (26.1 per cent) recorded the lowest literacy proficiency levels — at Level One or below — compared with the OECD average of 18.9 per cent.

In numeracy, nearly 28 per cent of adults here attained Level One proficiency or below, five percentage points higher than the OECD average of 22.7 per cent. But 13.3 per cent of adults attained the highest levels of numeracy proficiency, a touch above the OECD average of 11.2 per cent. On the use of digital tools for problem-solving, 7.7 per cent of adults here attained the highest proficiency level. This is above the OECD average of 5.4 per cent. 

Thirty-four economies were surveyed, although five did not take part in the test for problem-solving via digital tools. On the whole, adults in the Republic came in 26th in literacy, 24th in numeracy and eighth in problem-solving via digital tools. Japan came out on top in literacy and numeracy, while New Zealand took first place for using digital tools for problem-solving.

Proficiency levels here varied widely according to age. In literacy, 16.5 per cent of adults aged between 16 and 24 years attained the highest proficiency levels, compared with only 2.4 per cent among those aged 55 to 65.

As for numeracy, nearly one-fifth, or 19 per cent, of adults here aged 16 to 24 attained the highest proficiency levels, markedly higher than the OECD average of 10.1 per cent. By contrast, a mere 3.4 per cent among those aged 55 to 65 here attained the same levels of proficiency in numeracy.

Speaking at a media briefing on the findings on Tuesday (June 28), Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, said the disparity in scores between the younger and older adults reflected the improvement in the quality of the education and training systems here over the past five decades. 

Older adults could have also fared more poorly because the survey was in English, which nearly eight in 10 of the older adults surveyed did not learn at home during childhood. 

The OECD’s director for education and skills, Dr Andreas Schleicher, said the challenge for Singapore was in doing more for older adults.

Employers here must also value skills beyond formal credentials, such as degrees, so people with the right skills are placed in the right jobs. Dr Schleicher noted that employers in Singapore continued to put a heavy emphasis on paper qualifications, and pointed out that in the area of literacy, the OECD’s data showed the average Japanese high-school graduate was as highly-skilled as the average Singaporean tertiary graduate. 

There was also a huge “variability in the skills of people” holding a tertiary qualification here, which could be due to the differences in the quality, said Dr Schleicher, noting some qualifications are “a lot more questionable”. 

The WDA’s Mr Ng said Singaporeans should not “blindly chase a degree” and focus a great deal more on skills. 

The Piaac survey, the findings of which were released on Tuesday, spanned 34 economies worldwide — including Japan, Australia and Canada — and saw the participation of about 5,400 Singaporeans and permanent residents aged between 16 and 65.