United Kingdom

Working-age adults without qualifications

Graphs on this page:

Supporting information:

Key points

  • The proportion of the population aged 20 to retirement without any formal educational qualifications has fallen by two-fifths over the last decade, from 16% in 2000 to 10% in 2010.  This is not, however, because the proportion of young adults without a qualification has been falling (it has remained broadly unchanged) but because older adults, where the proportion without a qualification is high, have been reaching pensionable age.
  • More generally, the proportion of people under the age of 40 without any formal educational qualifications is, at 8%, smaller than the proportion for those in their 40s (10%) which is, in turn, much smaller than the proportion for those in their 50s (14-20%).  But there is hardly any difference in the proportion for those in their 20s and those in their 30s.
  • While there are big differences between the older and younger parts of the working age population as far as qualifications are concerned, the similarity in the proportions among those in their 20s and 30s suggests that the shift to the new norm actually took place in the 1990s (when those who are now in their mid-30s joined the working-age population) rather than more recently.
  • Up to the age of 40, there are no differences in the proportion without any formal educational qualifications between men and women.  By contrast, women in their 50s are much more likely to lack any qualifications than men: 20% compared with 14%.
  • At 20%, the proportion population aged 20 to retirement without any formal educational qualifications is much higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
  • Around half of the working-age population lack basic numeracy skills.  The proportion is similar in all the regions of England and in Wales.
  • One in six of the working-age population lack basic literacy skills.  The proportion is highest in Wales (25%).

Why this indicator was originally chosen

This indicator concerns the lack of educational qualifications as a barrier to work.  As shown in the indicator on the impact of education and work, those with no qualifications are more at risk of not being in paid work and of receiving low rates of pay.  Furthermore, individuals with no or very low qualifications have seen their earnings increase less rapidly in comparison to other groups in the workforce.1  As well as being an immediate issue, this also has long term implications for reduced earnings potential.

The indicator also reflects the changes in the labour market which have emerged as a result of technological developments. 2  A greater proportion of jobs require a broader range and higher level of skills, and a greater proportion now require at least some form of qualification.

More generally, this subject continues one of the core themes of the chapter on children – namely, that education in an important element in reducing the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.

Definitions and data sources

The first graph shows the proportion of adults aged 20 to retirement without any formal educational qualifications.  For comparison purposes, the equivalent proportion for those aged 20 to 29 is also shown.

The second graph shows how the proportion of adults without any formal educational qualifications various by gender and age.

The third graph shows how the proportion of adults aged 20 to retirement without any educational qualifications varies by region.

The data source for the first three graphs is the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and relates to the United Kingdom.  The figures for each year are the average for the four quarters of the relevant year.  To improve their statistical reliability, the data in the second and third graphs is the average for the latest three years.

The fourth graph shows the proportion of adults aged 16 to 64 with below Level 1 literacy and numeracy skills.

The standard for Level 1 is equivalent to that demanded for Level 1 (or a D-G grade GCSE) in the National Qualifications Framework. If someone is below Level 1, it suggests that they lack the necessary literacy or numeracy to achieve a formal qualification.  The National Assembly for Wales describes those without Level 1 in either literacy or numeracy as lacking ‘basic skills’, which in turn is defined as the ability to read, write and speak in English or Welsh, and to use mathematics at a necessary level to function and progress at work and in society.

The data source for the fourth graph is the Skills For Life Survey for England in 2002/03 and the National Survey for Adult Basic Skills in Wales 2004 (the data for which is not publicly available).  The Welsh survey was designed to be comparable with the Skills for Life Survey.

Overall adequacy of the indicator: high.  The LFS is a well-established, quarterly survey designed to be representative of the population as whole.

External links

Relevant 2007 Public Service Agreements

Overall aim:  Improve the skills of the population, on the way to ensuring a world-class skills base by 2020

Lead department

Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Official national targets

597,000 people of working age to achieve a first level 1 or above literacy qualification, and 390,000 to achieve a first entry level 3 or above numeracy qualification.

79% of working age adults qualified to at least full Level 2.

56% of working age adults qualified to at least full level 3.

130,000 apprentices to complete the full apprenticeship framework in 2010/11.

36% of working age adults qualified to Level 4 and above by 2014, with an interim milestone of 34% by 2011.

Increase participation in Higher Education towards 50% of those aged 18 to 30 with growth of at least a percentage point every two years to the academic year 2010/11.

Previous 2004 targets

Increase the number of adults with the skills required for employability and progression to higher levels of training through:

  • improving the basic skill levels of 2.25 million adults between the launch of Skills for Life in 2001 and 2010, with a milestone of 1.5 million in 2007; and
  • reducing by at least 40% the number of adults in the UK workforce who lack NVQ2 or equivalent qualifications by 2010.  Working towards this, one million adults already in the workforce to achieve level 2 between 2003 and 2006.

The numbers

Graph 1

Year 20 to retirement 20 to 29
1997 18% 9%
1998 18% 9%
1999 17% 8%
2000 16% 8%
2001 16% 9%
2002 15% 8%
2003 15% 8%
2004 14% 8%
2005 14% 8%
2006 13% 8%
200713% 8%
200812% 8%
200911% 8%
201010% 7%

Graph 2

Age group Men Women
20-29 8% 7%
30-398% 8%
40-49 10% 11%
50-5914% 20%

Graph 3

East 10%
East Midlands 11%
London 10%
North East 13%
North West 12%
Northern Ireland 20%
Scotland 12%
South East 8%
South West 7%
Wales 13%
West Midlands 14%
Yorkshire and the Humber 11%

Graph 4

Region Numeracy Literacy
East 42% 12%
East Midlands 49% 15%
London 48% 20%
North East 55% 21%
North West 49% 18%
South East 40% 11%
South West 49% 14%
Wales 53% 25%
West Midlands 47% 17%
Yorkshire and the Humber 51% 19%
1. For example, Labour market and skill trends 1997/98, Skills and enterprise Network, DfEE, 1997, page 79. 
2. Green, F, Ashton, D, Burchell, B, Davies, B and Felstead, A, Are British Workers Getting More Skilled?, in Atkinson, A and Hills, J (eds) Exclusion, employment and opportunity, CASE paper 4, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion: London School of economics, 1998, page 89.  There has been “an unambiguous increase in work skills from 1986 to 1997.  Whereas 62% of jobs required at least some qualification in 1986, by 1997, this has risen to 69%.  For ‘high level’ qualifications (anything above A-level), the proportion rose from 20% to 24%”.  This research also noted (page 98) that the numbers of people in work in Britain possessing no qualifications, dropped from 28% in 1986 to 19% in 1997.  The report also points out (page 123) that the types of skills increasingly needed include problem solving-skills, communication and social skills, and computing skills; alongside this shift, there has been a reduction in the use of manual skills – and “at both ends of the occupational spectrum there is evidence of rising skills”.