Smiling nurse talking to her patient sitting on her wheelchair

A report published by the organisation which represents the leading Western economies, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has suggested that the gap between school and work is increasing, with more and more young people leaving education without basic literacy and numeracy skills, and with little or no experience of the world of work. 

The result of this is the the creation of a generation of young people excluded from career and life opportunities, and whose prospects are, at best, limited to a succession of low-paid jobs. 

Combining data from surveys, international comparison tests and labour market statistics, the OECDs Skills Outlook 2015 offers the most up-to-date analysis of the skill level and employment prospects of 16-29-year-olds across its 34 member states. 

Worryingly, more than 35 million young people across the OECD countries are classed as NEETs, not in employment, in education or training. Currently, in England, more than 130,000 16-to-18 year olds are not in education, employment or training, with one in eight young people being classified as NEETs, the lowest proportion in a decade.

According to the report, across the OECD countries, 10% of new graduates have poor literacy skills and 14% have poor numeracy skills. Among young people who left school without finishing college education, 40% have poor literacy and numeracy. 

Britain’s low-skilled young people face the highest barriers to entering the workforce compared with their peers in other industrialised countries, because we've an even higher lack of employable skills which sees them shut out of the labour market. NEETs in the UK lagged far behind the rest of their age group in terms of literacy and problem solving, with the combined gap being the worst among the countries surveyed by the OECD.

In tackling poor skills, the report recommends that policymakers concentrate on helping NEETs to re-engage with education or the labour market. The report found that few school-leavers have experience of a working environment, while even for those on vocational education programmes, fewer than half were involved in work-based learning. 

This has meant that young people are having trouble finding work, while employers are dissatisfied with the work-readiness of those who do get a job. Even for those who do manage to find a job, one in four are on temporary contracts, meaning that they are less likely to be developing their skills than those in permanent positions. 

In this way, employers are advised to work with the education sector to design qualifications that both reflect graduate skills and respond to what businesses need.

The OECD’s remedy also includes greater efforts in identifying low achievers, to ensure fewer young people leave education lacking basic skills. They suggest that pre-primary education needs to help all children so they can mitigate disparities in education outcomes and to give every child a strong start to their education careers. 

Teachers and school leavers can also identify low achievers early on to provide them with support or special programmes to help them attain sufficient skills and prevent them from dropping out of school.

Successive UK governments have sought to solve the problem by requiring young people in England to receive some form of education or training between 16 to 18, which took effect last year. 

The OECD was also critical of the abilities of British young people who went on to higher education - with the skills of young British graduates lower than other countries including cognitive and numeracy skills.