The context of this comparative study is the rising importance of the use of and access to computers as part of contemporary employability. In turn computing skills, increasingly referred to as Information and Communications Technology (ICT) or ‘digital’ skills, also connect with the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. There are consequently divides between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, in relation to digital skills, basic skills and employment. It was these three divides that the study set out to investigate in the North American and British context.
At the core of the processes creating these divides is educational attainment. High educational achievers – i.e. those on the positive side of each divide in both countries – tend to show the highest literacy and numeracy levels as well. Those on the negative side tend to show the lowest levels, with poor literacy proficiency a crucial factor.
In the USA a consequence of poor educational progress in the early years is likely to be failure to complete high school, with drop out at any age from 15 onwards, depending on the minimum school-leaving age, which differs from state to state. A second chance to achieve high school credentials comes through the General Education Diploma (GED). Rather than return to high school to graduate in the conventional way or, in the case of immigrants, start high school from scratch, adults can attend adult education classes in preparation for the GED. The provision will often include significant literacy and numeracy components as core foundations of the curriculum to follow. The GED is meant to supply the student with a platform for employment equivalent to the high school graduation certificate.
In England policy concern focuses on the increasing difficulty young people with poor skills often have in gaining and sustaining employment in the contemporary labour market. In UK terms this is typically characterised as six months or more between the ages 16 to 18 ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET)’. Hence, poor literacy and, increasingly, lack of digital competence can lead to marginalisation and social exclusion. Basic skills courses in colleges or workplaces may supply a route back into education for some but usually not until their twenties.