Monday, 6 April 2015

Adult skills test: Dampener for S'pore

OECD's education chief says country unlikely to be a star performer, results will be out next year
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Apr 2015

Singapore is well known worldwide for its top placing in the maths, science and literacy tests that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) runs every three years for 15-year-olds.

But will its adults fare as well in tests on their level of literacy and numeracy skills?

About 5,000 people aged from 16 to 65 in Singapore were picked for the OECD's adult skills test called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

It assesses the literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills of adults and how well they use these skills at work and at home. The tests were done last year and the results will be out next year.

OECD's education chief Andreas Schleicher told The Sunday Times in an interview he does not expect Singapore to be "a star performer" and the survey is likely to expose gaps in the population's skills level.

"It may not be a pretty picture," he said.

Some countries that took part in the first round of the survey, in 2013, suffered "PIAAC embarrassment", he added.

Japan ranked first in all three areas assessed, but the survey revealed that Japanese employers fared poorly in making use of their workers' skills.

British policymakers got a wake-up call when the survey showed Britain was the only country where the skill levels of young people were below those of older people.

Mr Schleicher predicted that Singapore's results might show a difference in the skill levels of younger and older generations just like in South Korea, which also took part in 2013.

"The Korean data showed a large age-related gap," he said. "Singapore today has one of the greatest school systems in the world, but that was not the case 20 years ago. So you are likely to see lower skill levels among those over 40."

Another part of the survey collects a broad range of information on workers, including how they use their skills at work and in the community.

East Asian nations have fared poorly in this aspect and Singapore may too, as employers here tend to hire and promote their workers based on qualifications instead of skills, Mr Schleicher said.

Using the United States as an example of how skills are used, he said American adults were ranked around the middle in literacy and near the bottom in skills with numbers and technology but PIAAC found that the American economy was exceptionally good at extracting value from workers, including talented foreigners who headed there for further education and jobs.

"The employers there recognise their skills, know how to use them and are willing to pay them a pre-mium for their skills," said Mr Schleicher. "The reverse is true for Japan, where rigid labour market arrangements prevent many skilled individuals, notably women, from going into jobs where their skills can be well used."

He was all praise for Singapore's efforts to foster a skills revolution and open up pathways to encourage employers, workers, parents and students to build up relevant job skills and continue learning throughout their lives.

And while he agreed that it will take time to change the "academic mindset" of people - the preoccupation with exams and grades - he believed that culture could be changed.

Part of the problem is the signals sent out in society.

"If people see that rewards go to people based on qualifications and not their skills, then of course they are going to chase degrees," he said.

Dr Schleicher, who had a stint as a visiting professor at the National Institute of Education, said the shift has to start with the education system.

Although he is not an advocate of doing away with exams altogether, he said there is a downside to relying on examinations too much. "Students and educators focus on things that are being measured," he said.

What needs to change in Singapore, he felt, is how examinations are used for progression through the system, all the way to university.

"There is a need to change the entire system to change the culture. You can't just push one or two levers and expect change to happen," he said.

But he was optimistic that the many changes being made in Singapore can produce results.

He said he was impressed with the "culture of continuous improvement and future orientation" in the country.

"So if there is a country that can show how this shift can be made, then it is Singapore."


About 5,000 people in Singapore aged 16 to 65 took part in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) last year.

Nine other countries are participating in the second round of the survey, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The first round involved 23 countries, with the results released in October 2013.

All in, there are 32 countries participating, with the overall findings out next year.

The study aims to analyse the level and distribution of key cognitive and workplace skills.

The data will help countries better understand how education and training can nurture these skills.

Random sampling was used to select participants who are representative of Singapore's adult population.

Those surveyed sat for the test on a computer, or with paper and pencil for those who are not IT-literate. Surveyors also visited their homes to collect a broad range of information, including how skills are used at work and in the community.

In the first round, the OECD assessed skills in literacy and facility with basic mathematics, or numeracy, in all 23 countries. Participants in 19 countries were also assessed on their ability to use digital devices to find and evaluate information, communicate and perform common tasks.

Japan ranked first in all three fields, with Finland second in average scores. The Netherlands, Sweden and Norway were also near the top. Spain, Italy and France were at or near the bottom in literacy and numeracy.

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