Half of us lack modern world skills

The Australian
10 January, 2008
By Stephen Lunn, Social affairs writer

HALF of all Australians lack the minimum reading, writing and problem-solving skills to cope with life in the modern world.

A new survey on life skills by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals 46 per cent of the population, or seven million people, would struggle to understand the meaning of newspaper and magazine articles or documentation such as maps and payslips.

And 53 per cent reached just the second of five levels in a practical numeracy test, while 70per cent, the equivalent of 10.6million people, only managed to progress to level 2 in a series of problem-solving exercises. "Level 3 is regarded by the survey developers as the minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy," said the ABS report, Adult Literacy and Life Skills.

The survey of almost 9000 people, which included a written life-skills test, was also done in seven other developed countries. Switzerland and Norway came out well ahead of Australia, while the US ranked much lower across all age ranges. Italy was the poorest-performing country of those participating.

One stark difference in Australia was gender. Women were stronger at understanding written material than men, but males were better at understanding documents such as maps.

And when it came to numbers, women did considerably worse.

While 53 per cent of men achieved (the acceptable) level 3 or higher, only 42 per cent of women managed the same. And almost twice as many men as women reached the top levels of the numeracy test.

Management consultant and social commentator Wendy McCarthy said the results were further evidence Australia was becoming a society increasingly divided into two classes.

Ms McCarthy said a decade of neglect of the public education system was to blame.

"It's a huge opportunity lost," she said. "It clearly demonstrates that if you don't invest in public education, except as a safety net, if you don't make it sexy, interesting, exciting, a way to get into the next world, you will slip back - and that's what's happening to Australia.

"We will look back over the last 10 years and realise with some horror how much we overemphasised the value of the individual and overlooked the common denominators in our society."

The ACT was the best-performing state or territory in terms of literacy and numeracy, followed by Western Australia and South Australia. Tasmania performed worst. While people whose first language was not English achieved lower literacy scores than the general population, comparisons with a 1996 survey show considerable improvement in literacy levels of this cohort.

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