In the face of labour market changes driven by automation and digitalisation, and reinforced by the recent coronavirus crisis (COVID-19), the need for adults to possess a strong foundation of literacy, numeracy and digital skills on which to build new skills becomes more pressing across OECD countries. At the same time, the availability of comparable international data, notably through the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), has highlighted the challenge of low skills: in terms of the sheer scale of the population at risk and how important skills are in influencing individual well-being. Though the research base on adult basic skills formation is incomplete, it is growing. England (United Kingdom)1 stands out among OECD countries in the breadth and depth of its data and research evidence in developing and using adults’ skills.

Among low-skilled adults, workers in particular have been the subject of increased attention by policy makers around the world. Of England’s estimated 9 million adults with low basic skills, about 5 million are in work, according to the 2012 OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Low-skilled workers are employed throughout the economy, but are typically concentrated in small enterprises and lower value-added sectors. They are often in lower paying and less secure jobs, with less employer support for skills development, and cannot afford time off to improve their skills.

There is no single answer to the question of how to improve the basic skills of these workers and in fact solving the issue requires a comprehensive approach involving employers, trade unions, adult education providers and various government and community services across the entire learning cycle. This begins with identifying workers with low basic skills, raising the awareness of why improving those skills is important, increasing the accessibility to basic skills courses, ensuring they are flexible enough to accommodate adult learners who are already employed, and finally making the provision relevant to career aspirations, addressing issues of motivation. Recognising the importance and complexity of raising the skills of low-skilled adults, England has implemented a wide range of initiatives, including basic skills entitlements and the National Retraining Scheme (which has been integrated into the National Skills Fund) and a range of associated pilots.

This review is a follow-up study to the Building Skills for All: A Review of England report published in 2016, which identified the factors behind the large number of low-skilled adults in England and provided recommendations for strengthening basic skills in education and at work. Building on these findings, this review zooms in on the particular challenges faced by low-skilled workers and the opportunities for developing their skills while at work. This study is part of a series on low-skilled adults, which has also covered the United States, Finland and Australia. These reports are designed to ensure that countries make the most out of their skills policies, by building on the findings from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) both for policy development and for charting a way forward. The OECD is firmly committed to supporting countries in their bid to develop “better skills policies for better lives.”

Although this report represents the latest information available at the time of publication, certain findings and recommendations should be read in the context of the rapidly changing economic and policy landscape.

← 1. The present publication presents time series which end before the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on 1 February 2020. The EU aggregate presented here therefore refers to the EU including the UK.

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

© OECD 2020

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at