Impossible to compensate as an adult for deficiencies in compulsory education

New results from the SASLA project shows that the older a person is, the weaker her literacy proficiency, numeracy performance and ICT capacity on average.

Impossible to compensate as an adult for deficiencies in compulsory education

What happens to our ability to cope in society when we get older? New research shows that the quality of the education people receive in their first 25 years of life plays a decisive role for their health and well-being later in life.

For the first time, data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been combined to construct a Nordic perspective to gain insight into how a person’s age affects three key skill areas: literacy, numeracy and problem solving with ICT (information technology based on communication between people).

“Our research shows that the older a person is, the weaker her literacy proficiency, numeracy performance and ICT capacity on average, which may be associated with a lower quality of life,” states Professor Antero Malin of the University of Jyväskylä.

These three skill areas play a major role in how a person functions independently in society. Literacy entails the ability to understand, for example, government texts and comply with various types of instructions. Numeracy involves the capacity to perceive, apply and understand mathematical information, such as charts and tables in newspapers. The third important skill area entails a person’s ability to use digital techniques to communicate with others and to obtain information.

“The education people receive during their first 25 years of life is highly significant. Individuals with a college degree have much stronger and more well-developed skills at age 35 than those who do not have a degree or who has been unemployed for a long time,” continues Dr Malin.

Dr Malin has headed a group of 12 researchers who have studied cognitive foundation skills in people from age 16 to 65 from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The project is being funded by NordForsk’s programme Education for Tomorrow. The data used in the project are taken from the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), population register data for the Nordic countries and the earlier survey data from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

It goes downhill for everyone – regardless of education

“It is critical that people have sufficient skills in reading and understanding texts, for example when these involve their own health. In the long term this relates to the individual’s ability to prevent disease and generally increase one’s qualify of life,” says Egil Gabrielsen.

In their data, he and Kjersti Lundatrae found evidence that people who are less skilled at understanding texts also have poorer health and a lower quality of life than those with high literary proficiency. In addition, people with poor reading proficiency are less likely to seek help from the health services than those with higher proficiency.

“We can also link a low level of literacy with less ability to take medications correctly and to understand prescriptions, which may lead to poorer health in the long term,” states Dr Gabrielsen.

Regardless of education, work situation, gender, language and social background, people’s skills decrease from age 35 and onward. The downward curve appears about the same for all people and is not affected by factors such as further education taken later in life.

Concerned about compulsory education

Generally speaking, young people’s skills increase substantially in the first 10 years after compulsory education, that is, from the age of 15 to 25. After this, people’s skills decline – regardless of which education a person has completed later in life. Anders Rosdahl, a researcher at the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI), has taken a closer look at the relationship between the PISA 2000 and the PIACC 2012 surveys.

“We have been able to show that the higher the score a pupil gets on the PISA 2000 survey, the greater the likelihood that he will have a job and/or be a student 11 years later. The lower the score a pupil receives, the greater the risk that he will not have a job or be a student,” explains Dr Rosdahl.

The study shows that it is extremely important for everyone to receive good compulsory education. A high-quality education lays the foundation for how an individual’s cognitive foundation skills develop throughout his or her adult life.

“I am concerned about the decisions now being taken in the Nordic countries, especially in Finland, where they are cutting back on the financial foundation for giving children a high-quality education. Our research shows that it is very difficult to compensate later in life for deficiencies in compulsory education,” warns Dr Malin.

The SASLA project (Skill acquisition, skill loss, and age. A comparative study of Cognitive Foundation Skills) is part of NordForsk’s programme Education for Tomorrow. More information about the project.

Text: Mia Smeds

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