Who cares about literacy, numeracy, and other excuses for the crappy economy?


In 1996 New Zealand took part in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). This evolved into the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALLS) survey in 2006. Now in 2012, the survey has evolved again. The new acronym is PIAAC which stands for the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

The two earlier studies kicked off huge portfolios of work in New Zealand. They are the reason that we now have a professionalized literacy and numeracy workforce, high level qualifications for literacy and numeracy, as well as millions of dollars spent annually on all kinds of literacy and numeracy education.

After the 2006 study, it was common for politicians and bureaucrats to speak of the 1 million NZ adults who fell below the required level of competency. These 1 million adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy were supposed to be the key to unlocking our national productivity. The idea was that if we could raise their literacy and numeracy levels, productivity would increase. And there would be other benefits as well.

Six years on from the ALLS survey, the PIAAC looks finely tuned and available to help countries make some sensible statements about the state of the nation with regards to literacy and numeracy levels. Hopefully, we’ve improved as a nation. It would be nice to know.

The PIAAC website says that the programme:

  • is the most comprehensive international survey of adult skills ever undertaken;
  • is a collaboration between governments, an international consortium of organisations and the OECD;
  • will take place across OECD and partner countries in 2011 with results published in 2013;
  • will measure the skills and competencies needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper;
  • will help governments better understand how education and training systems can nurture these skills.

What’s more, the boffins that design this stuff have tweaked it in a very 21st century way to capture data that wasn’t really in view last time around. This is to do with technology-rich environments. Again, from their website, the survey will collect data by:

  • interviewing adults aged 16-65 years in their homes – 5 000 in each participating country;
  • assessing their literacy and numeracy skills and their ability to solve problems in technology-rich environments;
  • collecting a broad range of information from the adults taking the survey, including how their skills are used at work and in other contexts such as the home and the community.

5000 people is a pretty good sample size. Literacy and numeracy in the context of work and technology. This is sounding pretty good. Being literate and numerate, solving problems, and doing all of this in a tech-rich context are arguably some of the most important skills we need in this economy.

But who cares? Well, it would be easy to think that the current New Zealand government does not. At this point in time (May 2012) New Zealand is not participating. I know this because the list of countries that are participating is here. I can find Norway and the Netherlands, but not New Zealand. I find this very odd.

So why aren’t we (being New Zealand) participating? Well, I’ve got several possible answers:

  1. We don’t care. I don’t actually believe this. My interactions with people in government departments have actually been quite positive. Most career bureaucrats I know do actually care, and really want to make a difference. I think they find it hard to do this, but that’s a different problem.
  2. We forgot. This is possible. Perhaps, we just overlooked the fact that this incredibly significant study was coming up. And perhaps we forgot to register our interest or put our hands up to play with the big countries. I don’t think this one is right either. I’m sure the OCED people would have New Zealand’s phone number or email from the last time round. I’m sure they’d want us to play and would have contacted us.
  3. We’re too busy. This is possible. We are quite busy. We have earthquakes and the economy to deal with. Times are hard. But times are always hard and people are always busy. I’m not sure this one is correct either.
  4. We don’t think literacy and numeracy are a priority any more. That’s bollocks, if you don’t mind my saying so. I don’t believe we’ve done the work to fix the problems. We’re only just getting warmed up. Even if we had fixed the problem, wouldn’t it be great to get a measure of how well we’ve done?
  5. We think the adult literacy and numeracy levels have gotten worse, not better. Oh brother… that better not be the reason. Even if it was, better to face the issue with eyes wide open don’t you think? Would heads roll if we were getting worse not better? I doubt it… there’s no one left to fire. All the government departments I work with have been gutted anyway. Who knows where all those people went.
  6. We don’t know. This is probably more the case. And maybe the real answer is a little of everything above. The economy is in a bit of a mess. Every industry is being disrupted. Those that haven’t been disrupted are about to.
So who cares about some literacy survey? Well, actually I do. And I’ve been trying to do something about it since 2007. Suck it up guys. Join the PIAAC please.

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