Italy and Spain have come bottom of a new OECD ranking of literacy and numeracy skills, with British youngsters performing worse than their grandparents.
France didn’t excel either, and neither did the United States. The best results of the European countries were achieved by Finland, who took the second spot after the overall best Japan.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), such results are rather disconcerting as basic numeracy and literacy skills form the basis on which the country’s prosperity can be built.
"Those skills are the foundation on which everything else is built," said Andreas Schleicher, coordinator of the study and the OECD's deputy director for education and skills. "Overall, the results suggest that investments in improving adults' proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments may have significant benefits."
The survey tested 166,000 individuals between16 and 65 years of age from 24 countries. It has revealed an average Japanese high-school graduate has better literacy skills than an Italian university graduate.
The UK has performed particularly poorly in the 16 to 24 years category, coming 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.
Commenting on the results, the OECD warned that despite facing a tougher labour market, the UK's young people have skills similar to those who are retiring from the workplace.
"When you look at this snapshot you do have to conclude that these young people are not any better skilled when it comes to those foundation skills than people in the older generation. And, more importantly, young people in the UK lag considerably behind their peers in other countries when it comes to those foundation skills," Schleicher said.
The UK results were based on a sample of about 9,000 people from England and Northern Ireland who took part in the survey.
The survey was the first of its kind to measure people's actual skills and how they are used at work instead of estimating them based on their educational backgrounds.
The survey confirmed earlier OECD research that high-quality initial schooling is an important predictor of success in adult life.
It found that millions of adults – between 7 and 27 per cent in participating countries – were unable to master even simple computer skills such as using a mouse.
The findings showed that England and Northern Ireland have some of the highest proportions of adults scoring no higher than Level 1 in literacy and numeracy – the lowest level on the OECD's scale, meaning their skills are about the same as those of ten-year-olds. These skills are crucial for success in the competitive job market.
“GCSEs in the STEM subjects are the first crucial stepping stone to progressing into not just the engineering and technology sector but a wide range of careers. It is therefore crucial that a high level of uptake and attainment is maintained,” Stephanie Fernandes, IET Principal Policy Advisor, commented on the results.
Apart from Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden were among the best performing European countries.
"This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world,” said UK’s Skills Minister Matthew Hancock, blaming the failure on previous Labour governments.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "It is deeply worrying that our young people are no better skilled than their parents' generation. If we are to stay competitive in the global labour market, we need a strong supply of highly-skilled workers.
"The government needs to take bold measures to turn around our country's skills and give us a chance of competing with the likes of Korea, Finland and Germany, who have shown an ability to create high levels of skills in their populations."