chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up home circle comment double-caret-left double-caret-right like like2 twitter epale-arrow-up text-bubble cloud stop caret-down caret-up caret-left caret-right file-text

EPALE - Ηλεκτρονική Πλατφόρμα για την Εκπαίδευση Ενηλίκων στην Ευρώπη


Low-skilled? Really?

από David Mallows
Γλώσσα: EN
Document available also in: HU DE PL

Some skills are more valued than others

A great strength of the European Commission’s Upskilling Pathways initiative is the recognition that for many adults gaining vocational qualifications at EQF Level 3 or 4 is a distant possibility and one that requires significant investment in their literacy, numeracy and digital skills. At the recent Adult Skills Conference in Brussels there was consistent recognition of the importance of member states designing effective basic skills policies to ensure access to the Upskilling Pathways for all members of society.

However, despite the positive, inclusive messages of many of the speakers at the conference, I was disappointed that the term ‘low-skilled’ was still being used by so many to describe the target group of the Commission’s Adult Skills policies. Indeed, the OECD and Cedefop appear quite wedded to it. Of central concern is that the term ‘low-skilled adults’ is simply inaccurate. It is usually based on two sources of data: educational outcomes and/or standardised assessments of reading and numeracy and so it recognises only a very narrow set of skills.

In the ELINET project we produced guidance for policy makers in the use of terminology when talking about adult learners in which we warned of the dangers of the use of such terms. In this guidance we noted that no adult lacks skills, but that certain skills (usually those that are easy to measure), are more valued than others in policy rhetoric:

The people we are referring to might speak several languages; drive a range of vehicles; be experts in agriculture, astronomy or athletics; they may hold down jobs, raise families, manage budgets, take part in civic life, including voting, trade unions, housing and faith communities. If someone cannot drive, they would feel it was offensive to call them ‘low-skilled’, so it is equally offensive to call someone low-skilled because they are limited in aspects of literacy.

As the quote above notes, not only is the term ‘low-skilled’ inaccurate, it is also disrespectful and betrays ignorance of the reality of adults’ lives.


To lack ‘schooling’ does not mean to know nothing of value

At the conference in Brussels, following one of the presentations where the term ‘low-skilled’ was used without any explanation of what it actually means, esteemed adult educator Alberto Melo from Portugal shared an anecdote with participants in which he questioned its use. He told us how, in his work with rural communities in the 70s and 80s he frequently encountered adults who told him that they were ignorant, that they lacked ‘schooling’ and knew nothing of value. However, as Alberto soon noted, these same people had many skills that he lacked and that were of great value to them in their lives. They could build and repair their own houses, grow crops and rear animals and process them into food; they were organised collectively and had agreed processes for the management of their land and its produce. Later in the conference I caught up with Alberto and asked him to retell the story:



The policy implications of negative terminology

As well as being inaccurate and disrespectful, the use of this term is also likely to lead to adult education policies that fail to address the challenge set as part of the European Commission’s Adult Skills Agenda. Both OECD and Cedefop recognise in the body of their reports that the term ‘low-skilled’ is just short-hand and masks the complexity of the lives and abilities of adults. And yet, despite this, the term is consistently used in policy headlines to talk about those who are at risk of social exclusion or excluded from the labour market.

We all know that language is important and that it can shape our attitudes.

By characterising this group of adults by what they cannot do rather than what they can and want to do, (a deficit approach) there is a real danger that the Upskilling Pathways initiative designed by Member States will alienate rather than inspire adults.

Adult learning theory teaches us that adults will only engage in learning that they find meaningful and that is of immediate relevance and use to them. A focus on what adults cannot do is likely to further stigmatise those with poor literacy, numeracy or digital skills and make it less likely that they will either seek or accept support in improving those skills. If we design adult learning with a predefined, inaccurate, and disrespectful understanding of the ‘low-skilled’ we should not be surprised if they fail to engage. If instead we listen carefully to adults and design programmes that build on their interests and their skills, we may have a chance of creating Upskilling Pathways that are meaningful, engaging and successful.


David Mallows has 30 years experience in adult education as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager and researcher. He was previously Director of Research at the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) at the UCL Institute of Education, London and currently represents the European Basic Skills Network in EPALE as thematic coordinator for Life Skills.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Epale SoundCloud Share on LinkedIn
Refresh comments Enable auto refresh

Εμφάνιση 1 - 10 από 20
  • Εικόνα Paul HOLDSWORTH


    Thanks for this fascinating conversation. It shows, I think, the value of EPALE as a platform for the exchange of ideas, and for the development of new ones.

    I've been mulling over some of the issues raised, and here I offer a few thoughts of my own on use of language ('low skilled' etc) and on the 'deficit model'.


    Careless use of shorthand terms can disrespect and alienate the people they refer to.
    Quite agree. We should aim to speak with surgical precision and clarity.
    I sometimes refer to 'adults who struggle with literacy/ numeracy / digital skills'.

    This thread would be a good place to develop more appropriate terminology to designate people who could benefit from Upskilling Pathways, and I look forward to reading suggestions.


    The three 'basic' skills are not the totality of skills. The fact that a person lacks knowledge and competences in some of them does not mean that he or she has no knowledge or competences at all; public discourse should acknowledge this.
    Absolutely. But for the first time, ever, we now have hard and reliable data about adults' actual skills in three areas. It shows fairly conclusively that millions of adults do not only lack qualifications (pace Andrew), they also lack important life skills. Public policy can legitimately (must?) make use of this data, even though it can only be a proxy for a fuller picture.

    A 'deficit' approach may alienate learners.
    Hmmm. Agree that using the language of deficit in contact with learners would not be respectful, or productive. But I don't actually think anyone in the field would do that.

    But there seems to be an assumption that a 'deficit' approach is always a Bad Thing.
    So far as I am aware, the literature around the 'deficit' approach in education focuses mostly on school education and on the ways in which children with 'special needs' or 'disabilities' are educated. By seeing them as 'deficient' compared with 'normal' children, teachers / policymakers may adopt strategies that hinder the full development of their potential. There is undoubtedly an issue there.

    But is this the case with Upskilling Pathways?

    Firstly, we know from PIAAC that there are millions of adults in Europe who struggle with important everyday tasks like calculating their bill at the supermarket checkout or correctly understanding the dosage instructions for a medicine or reading a bus timetable on the internet.

    These are, (surely?) 'deficits': the inability to perform such tasks with confidence limits a person's ability to  be fully autonomous and might even be dangerous.

    Furthermore, we know that literacies are essential bases for further learning. A person who doesn't (yet) have these bases is cut off from the possibility of developing her potential.

    I therefore suggest that a case could be made that it is legitimate to use a 'deficit' model in the process of defining a group of individuals to whom society wants to offer the opportunity for getting specific remedial help.
    It's remedial because it's trying to put right the (state's?) failings during the person's initial education. It's necessary to define a group because resources don't allow all 400 000 000 EU adults to benefit.


    But selecting people for intervention based upon such 'deficits' (of the system) does not necessarily have to mean that the service cannot be provided in a humane and person-centred manner, valuing fully where they are now in their learning journey and where they might like to get to.

    Indeed, as the Upskilling Pathways text shows, the aim is that every beneficiary should be able to have his or her skills assessed, precisely to show if he or she could benefit from any further support on their learning pathway. The novelty of Upskilling Pathways lies precisely in the fact that the skills assessment should be the basis for a tailored package of learning (and support and guidance and validation) to assist the individual to progress to wherever she or he wants to go. The learner is at the centre.

    The term 'Upskilling Pathways' was chosen by Member States because it conveys the idea of (each of us) being on a pathway of learning – it doesn't say anything about your starting point but it does suggest forward movement.


    I look forward to others' thoughts on this.

    And I look forward to a 2017 in which more and more EPALE-rs getting involved in helping to design and promote Upskilling Pathways in their country or region! Happy Holidays!



  • Εικόνα David Mallows

    Thanks for the interesting comment Paul - a couple of points below from me.

     …for the first time, ever, we now have hard and reliable data about adults' actual skills in three areas. It shows fairly conclusively that millions of adults do not only lack qualifications (pace Andrew), they also lack important life skills. 

    1. PIAAC is not the first international survey of this type – we’ve known for many years that literacy and numeracy levels in European countries are (surprisingly) poor (and the problem solving element of PIAAC didn’t really tell us very much at all). I hope that policy makers will use the new data wisely - the story ot tells is not as simple as the OECD league tables might suggest. 2. I’m afraid that the picture of adults’ skills as described by PIAAC is not as simple as you make out – they may lack some important life skills, depending on the circumstances of their lives. If I do not need to use much literacy, then my poor literacy will not hold me back. Indeed, 30% of those scoring at or below Level 1 in numeracy scored at least Level 2 for literacy, Many of them are university graduates. Is numeracy not an important life skill? Why then are they not suffering for it? PIAAC and other large scale international assessments do provide interesting data, but they (necessarily) measure something that is not real. 

    …there seems to be an assumption that a 'deficit' approach is always a Bad Thing.

    That is my view certainly. I think that you are confusing a targeted approach (providing opportunities that are needed by particular populations) and the deficit approach (defining the target group by what they do not know). It isn't a deficit approach to simply say that millions of Europeans lack the literacy skills to complete a Level 3/4  qualification. There are many problems with the deficit approach, earlier I suggested that it can lead to education policy that alienates adults, it can also be internalised by those same adults, leading to demotivation.

    I agree that the Upskilling Pathways is not necessarily a deficit model; its focus on initial assessment and tailored pathways have great potential to produce something that is learner-centred and effective.  To be successful Upskilling Pathways need to recognise that many adults will need to improve their basic skills before they are able to achieve higher level vocational qualifications. If this group of adults (and it is an incredibly diverse group) feel that they are being defined by their poor basic skills, they will be far less likely to engage. 

  • Εικόνα Nadia Reynders

    These are the key messages presented at the National Agencies meeting in Brussels this week, look at the first one :-)


  • Εικόνα David Mallows

    Good to see you on EPALE David and yes, I'm sure that's part of the problem. It's far more complicated than one policy initiative can solve, so the temptation is to simplify and that then misses so many things that could otherwise attract adults to improve their skills, by building on what they do know.

  • Εικόνα Zoltan Varkonyi

    Dear David,

    Thank you for being stubborn in drawing attention to the inappropriate use of terms, during and after the conference, it is not so easy to do it effectively when people are so engaged in certain contexts and looking things from a certain perpective. But this blog with the inspired reactions is a brilliant example on how to stir up attention for an important and looked over issue. It also gave me some thoughts regarding a phenomen I experience in a particular context: there is a growing concern and accelerating discussions on lack of digital competences in society. The public discourse is primarily led by journalists as well as people involved in creating and implementing policies on information and telecommunication developments and digitalisation, typically with background in technology and law and other related desciplines, but rearly in education. Often there is a reference in this discource to the enourmous masses of 'digital analphabets', those who lack digital competences, who described as one of the main bottlenecks of progress, also implying as a kind of big burden for the rest of the community and nearly putting the blame of them for "not making their homework as citizens". The word 'analphabet' has a very negative, disgraceful connotation in our society. I think it is very incorrect to return to this orthodox phrase of expressing insufficient lieracy in this new context, not only because it is not accurate (most of those people use some kind of digital device like traditional mobile phones), disrespectful towards individual (there could be thousands of reason why they dont master these skills), and not last because by being stigmatized by belonging to this group, this language does not really motivate many to do something about it but rather conserves a state. Moreover, this kind of language does not increase the energy and offer the angle for those being part in this discourse to contribute with new ideas how to combat this challenge, since it create a picture of a huge and massive problem of nearly helpless people.

    So thank you for all your above considerations, I feel after this that it worth speaking about this kind of language in public, and many of the argument about literacy can be transfered to the sub-context of digital literacy.

  • Εικόνα David Kendall

    Well done for opening this particular can of worms, David. It is v important and is perhaps partly a result of funding-bid-speak (here is a huge problem I can solve) being normalised. Doesn't value the self-taught/well read only the tested.  

  • Εικόνα David Mallows

    You make some very helpful points Estera. There are no unique solutions for adults who need upskilling pathways. Everyone is different and so adult educators need to be given the flexibility to respond to and meet those needs. You say that countries should rely on their own traditions and experiences, but equally local communities should be allowed to do so. That doesn't mean that there can't be sharing of knowledge and common standards etc. but one size really doesn't fit all.


  • Εικόνα Estera Mozina

    Dear David, very much agree, we need to learn from each other. I am thinking  how else can I support your arguments for (liberal) adult learning besides from my heart. We have the BeLL project results, the project investigates the benefits of lifelong learning see the Manninen report from 2014. There are empirical findings about what wider benefits adult learning could bring about especially for learners with less formal education.  

    Maninen concludes when he explains the model of benefits that ,since liberal AE courses are selected by learners themselves, the activating and directing elements (like curiosity, task value) are automatically present in the learning situation (see for example Manninen, 2014). Slow paced instruction, low expectancy levels and rarely used tests reduce anxiety, and small gradual achieve-ments lead into positive learning experiences, and therefore also in changes in learner self-image and in self-confidence. These in turn may lead into better sense of control of own life …'

    And further on ,The ability of liberal AE to change educational experiences links BeLL results into the long tradition of participation research (cf. Cross 1981; Rubenson 1979; Cookson 1986).  Lower educated and less experienced adult learners depend more on prior schooling experiences, which therefore play a central role in their motivation (see Manninen 2003). New – positive – learning experiences at adulthood are therefore likely to change these images, and as de-scribed earlier, voluntary participation in liberal AE is more likely to generate these positive learning experiences.'

  • Εικόνα Estera Mozina

    It seems that the answer to this question is straigtforward, or not. I am very happy that the discussion on the terminology (and not only that) has started alongside the new EU policy document Upskilling Pathways. The term 'low skilled' has not been translated into Slovenian language, instead the Slovenian version reads as 'poti izpopolnevanja: nove priložnosti za odrasle'  (my translation would be 'pathways for improving / perfecting (not saying what): new opportunities for adults'.  First impression is positive, no negative connotation for adult learners. So we have a problem that ‘we do not name’.  Do we have a problem at all? Is the problem perfidiously ‘masked’ this way?

    I work in the area of adult literacy in Slovenia for more than 20 years, during this time we used different terms trying to understand the educational needs of different groups of adults with low levels of education. Nowadays we are more confused than ever. What do we mean with literacy, functional literacy, numeracy, basic skills, key competences? When terms are translated into Slovene we are even more apart. Are these empty concepts or we think we know what is the essence of each? One of the terms that is still persistent especially in the media is functional (il)literacy. Even if you strictly talk about (basic) skills, the term used in the newspaper article will be still 'functional literacy'.  It is the term that is fully booked only for adults in Slovenia. It seems adults do not need to think and feel, they only need to ‘function’ preferably in the labour market.

    I was also coordinating two international surveys on adult literacy in Slovenia IALS and PIAAC. Both surveys revealed that there are rather large numbers of adults in Slovenia who lack the skills that were assessed. Knowing the bones and flash of the two surveys I couldn't agree more with what was said that only a narrow set of skills was assessed, those which can be measured in an international context and in a comparative way. But I would also argue that PIAAC methodology is one of the most rigorous and comprehensive assessment methodologies up to now.

    However, a few days ago the PISA results were revealed in Slovenia.  Slovenian youngsters did much better this time above OECD and EU average. One of the frequent questions nowadays in Slovenia is how can we explain the fact that adult skills have not improved much in 18 years (between 1998 and 2016), on the other hand the skills of youth improved  considerably in much less than a decade. My question is can you imagine that Slovenia would not participate either of the adult literacy assessment?  I am sure that there would be no terminology and no policy in the area of adult (basic) skills, because the problem would not exist.  

    Recently Michael W Apple known for his work on theory of curriculum commented the PISA results in Slovenia. Surprisingly, he did not applaud as expected to Slovenian achievements of youth in math and science. He said that if that is all we expect from school than pupils are only machines for production of knowledge. PISA results (and similar assessments) contribute to collective loss of memory.  Contrary, school has to raise citizens, critical thinkers and readers… In some countries only achievements matter, weak students are not given appropriate help. He also said that Slovenia is one of rare countries where also poor can study (this is still true for children and youth, but only to a certain extend for adults), and in which knowledge is not owned by those who are rich, corporations and banks.

    I agree with many other things that he said, and in a way he reinforced what I think, that there are no unique solutions for adults who need upskilling pathways. Countries have to understand the educational needs of adults in-depth and more than ever rely on their own traditions and experiences. When you do not have any data it is very difficult convince policy makers that there is a problem. But sometimes is more difficult to explain that one solution does not fit all, shortcuts when models are transferred from one country to another do not necessarily work in different cultural context.

  • Εικόνα Andrew McCoshan

    Just saying how much I like your input, Estera, highlighting so many angles to this issue...