Active citizenship and non-work related aspects of PIAAC

PIAAC results have relevance outside work as they show how skills are related to active citizenship, and social cohesion. 


There is a correlation between low levels of skills and sense of influence in politics.

Photo: Rama


PIAAC results are commonly interpreted from the point of view of work skills. The results, however, have relevance outside the work context as they shed light on how skills are related to active citizenship, and social cohesion.  A clear relation can be drawn between good literacy skills and traits such as trust and social engagement. Investing in lifelong learning has a double function then: in addition to boosting labour market skills, lifelong learning carries a wealth of societal and individual benefits. 

The launch of the OECD Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC) results should be seen as a wake-up call for action for policy and decision makers, NGOs and the adult education community around Europe. It definitely presents a priceless lobbying tool for adult education advocates. Because, due to high unemployment rates and the aftermath of a long time of various crises, the focus of skills and learning still lies on employment, employability as well as skills for the working life.

Research (and also PIAAC) results might be read and interpreted in a way that higher skills proficiency levels first and foremost transfer directly to better chances on the job market and increased abilities in the work place.

It is of course true that learning may take place in the workplace and people improve their abilities by practicing their skills every day at work as well as through targeted workplace training. However, PIAAC proves benefits of and the requirement for continuous learning in Europe also outside the workplace, as it collected information on how skills are used at home and in the community, as well as how these skills are related to health, trust, social cohesion and social and political engagement. This article focuses on the relation between active citizenship and literacy proficiency levels, one of the three skills groups measured in PIAAC. Unfortunately importance of these non-work related benefits of (increased) literacy levels and therefore also of adult learning are often not recognized enough.

Adult education and democracy

Can we draw a simple correlation between literacy and democracy? Are low-skilled people more prone to undemocratic groups than others? No, it is not that easy, but the PIAAC results nevertheless raise important issues. I believe that these issues have a particular resonance in a year of European parliamentary elections.

The PIAAC study presents some indicators for citizenship and democracy. Trust is one of them:

Trust is the bedrock of democracy. Without trust in others and in the rule of law, all relationships, whether business, political or social, function less efficiently. The foundations of trust are established on three complementary levels: trust as an individual trait, trust as a relationship, and trust as a cultural rule (Sztompka, 1999). For an individual, certain skills may lead to trust in others. For example, key information-processing skills may enable people to understand better the motives and aspirations of others and the conditions under which these may be shown. Skills may also enable people to forge trust by fostering lasting relationships with the aim of accomplishing mutually rewarding outcomes” (OECD; 2013, p. 237 f)


Figure 4: OECD, Skills Outlook 2013, First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, p. 238

How to read the table: the odds ratio on the horizontal axis presents the likelihood of low levels of trust, while the different colored bars and the diamond symbol depict three different literacy proficiency levels. For example, for Australia, the adults reading at the lowest level of 1 or below (diamond) are more than twice as likely to report low levels of trust (odds ratio is close to three) than those reading at level 3 (blue column, with odds ratio of 1,5).

The chart above, from PIAAC, explains that in all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are also less likely to trust others. For example, on average across countries, individuals who perform at the lowest Level 1 in literacy are twice as likely to report low levels of trust as individuals who score at Level 4 or 5, even after accounting for their education and social background.
Again, the causes and targets of trust are too complex to analyse with PIAAC, but a clear relation between trust and literacy levels can be drawn. Trust is the glue of modern societies and without trust people may avoid taking risks. Emphasising fairness and integrity in policy development and implementation, ensuring that policy making is inclusive, and building real engagement with citizens: all these involve trust as a basic citizen skill.

A second indication for democracy and citizenship is ‘political efficacy’, i.e. the belief of individuals that they have an influence on their surroundings – the belief, in short, that they can make a difference (see table 2 below). Certain abilities may make people feel more powerful by instilling a sense of control and making people feel that they can make a difference. In particular literacy skills are needed to understand political issues as most of the sources of information are text-based.


Figure 5: OECD, Skills Outlook 2013, First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, p. 240

PIAAC results reveal that adults with lower levels of skills are more likely to report feeling a low level of political efficacy or the sense of influence on the political process. The difference between Level 3 and Level 1 are quite striking in almost all of the countries (the odds ratio below presenting the likelihood of low levels of political efficacy, while the different colored bars and the diamond again depicting the literacy proficiency level). Adults who score at or below Level 1 are more than twice likely to report that they don’t think that they have any say about what their government does compared to adults who score at Level 4 or 5.

Skills affect social cohesion

From the above discussion we could argue the following: PIAAC shows that a high degree of inequality between low- and high-skilled people may raise distrust. People might be more inclined to trust others who are more like them. Therefore proficiency in skills may influence social (in)equality, social in- or exclusion and social cohesion, through the role of building trust in others who are or who are not like them (such as highly- or low-skilled person). 

Furthermore, the pattern that emerges in PIAAC is clear and in line with the findings of previous surveys (e.g. the International Adult Literacy Survey and the Adult Literacy Life Skills Survey): adults from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds have higher scores on average than those from disadvantaged backgrounds (socio-economic background is proxied by parents’ educational attainment).

Why does learning breed civic activity and cohesion?

Civic participation and civic and social engagement

Feinstein et al. (2008) argue that education can have a positive influence on societal cohesion and citizenship. Regarding societal cohesion, the main contributions of education are greater trust (as discussed above), more civic co-operation and lower levels of violent crime. Additionally, individual engagement in education is a predictor of engagement in public life because “the more students are engaged in their education, the more willing they are, on average, to play a positive role in public life” (p. 20).

PIAAC in this regard focuses on volunteering and how this is linked to literacy proficiencies and reveals that adults with higher levels of skills are more likely to report that they engage in volunteer activities.
The study theorises that higher levels of skills motivate people to volunteer by instilling a sense that they have something to offer. According to PIAAC certain skills may help people to be aware of others around them and of the complex processes involved in society, creating an interest in participating in the processes of social change.

Also other studies showed that skills acquired through for example adult education lead moreover to an increase in racial tolerance and a greater likelihood of voting. Preston (2004) analyzed the impact of adult education on participants’ civic lives and on the formation of values, particularly tolerance. He found that learning can have an impact on informal and formal civic participation. Concerning informal civic participation, it has helped individuals to build, maintain, dismantle, reconstruct and enrich their social networks.

Attitude Change

PIAAC concludes that skills may enable people to understand better the motives and aspirations of others as well as foster understanding. An individual who participates in adult learning may differ from one who does not in terms of prior attitude. A number of recent studies demonstrate that learners become more engaged in their communities, and less isolated, as a result of an attitude shift. These shifts are expressed in greater sense of confidence, trust, tolerance, open-mindedness, as well as reduced prejudice, racism and political cynicism. It was found (Feinstein et al., 2003) that adult learning is associated with more “open-minded” perspectives on race and authority, greater understanding of people from different backgrounds, challenging previously held beliefs and with a sustaining effect on non-extremist views. Especially academic oriented courses are most suited for opening minds and generally link adult learning to increased racial tolerance, a reduction in political cynicism and a higher inclination towards democratic attitudes.

Also other previous studies have shown the impact of adult education on citizenship and democracy, such as the project BeLL – Benefits of Lifelong Learning – which has been analyzing benefits following participation in adult education in ten European countries. This research showed that 31 – 42 % of interviewees reported positive changes in regard to their “active citizenship”, meaning political participation as well as their civic and Social Engagement, which shows through joining associations, volunteering and playing a more active role in the community.

Four factors of learning

Additionally, the formation of values can be influenced by learning. For example changes in tolerance, understanding and respect were reported by respondents of Preston’s study mentioned above. Civic and social engagement (CSE) as learning outcome has been previously analyzed by the OECD (2007). Four factors of learning that foster CSE have been identified:


  • “By shaping what people know – the content of education provides knowledge and experience that facilitate CSE.
  • By developing competencies that help people apply, contribute and develop their knowledge in CSE.
  • By cultivating values, attitudes, beliefs, and motivations that encourage CSE.
  • By increasing social status – this applies to forms of CSE that are driven by the relative position of individuals in a social hierarchy. “

However more years in education do not automatically mean higher levels of CSE. There are more variables, such as curriculum, school ethos, and pedagogy that shape CSE. But learning environments that lay stress on responsibility, open dialogue, respect and application of theory and ideas in practical and group-oriented work seem to be more successful in fostering CSE than other forms of learning.

What do we learn from PIAAC?

European societies are becoming more complex, and generally, there are no simple solutions to political problems. Populist parties present simple answers and, in order to be able to see behind these strategies, Europe needs people that can read and understand more complex contexts. This is especially true for the European level and the European institutions. As Europe gets ready for the next European elections, it is in the interest of democracy and European cohesion that we boost the access to adult education.

PIAAC shows that high skills proficiency levels can promote social cohesion and strengthen citizenship, and can deepen social networks. Adult learning may support the development of shared norms, greater trust towards other individuals and the government and more civic co-operation.

Therefore there is a call for an increased awareness of the wider benefits of lifelong learning, which go way beyond the economic and job-benefits, but extend to social and individual benefits, such a social cohesion and active citizenship. Participating in learning activities and increasing skills can provide a stable time framework, a community, a chance for re-orientation, a safe place, a new challenge, social recognition, and end up being an important tool for empowerment. Especially in times of crisis, literacy skills are necessary for tackling economic and societal challenges

Also there is a need for increased public investment in learning for adults that supports a stronger economy, promotes social mobility and is vital for the country’s prosperity and wellbeing. As the PIAAC results show, public investment in adult learning is crucial especially for those who left initial education without any qualifications and those who are living in poor households.

PIAAC shows that in average 20 % of the EU adult population have low literacy and numeracy skills. Literacy as a continuum is the most significant foundation for an active participation in a rapidly changing society. Urgent action is needed to improve these skills across Europe.

This article is produced in cooperation with the InfoNet adult education correspondents’ network.


OECD. (2013). Skills Outlook 2013, First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills.

Green A., Preston J., Malmberg, L-E. (2004). Non-material benefits of education, training and skills at macro level. In Descy, P. Tessaring, M. (Eds.). Impact of education and training. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2004

Sztompka, P. (1999) Trust: a Sociological Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Vorhaus J., Duckworth K., Budge, D. Feinstein, L. (Eds.) (2008).  The Social and personal benefits of learning: A summary of key research findings. Center for Research on the Wider benefits of Learning.