Insight Note

Education and Employability: The Critical Role of Foundational Skills

Key Points

  • Foundational skills are associated with individual and societal economic gains.
  • In developing countries, most children are not achieving the expected level of foundational skills.

  • It is difficult for TVET to add value where foundational skills are very low.

  • In developing countries, TVET interventions have only small impacts on employment outcomes and are more expensive to deliver than basic education.

  • The focus on linking TVET systems to employer demands is unlikely to address the key binding constraints to better employment outcomes.

  • In countries with high levels of learning poverty, investing in effective basic education programmes—particularly those which build strong foundational skills—is likely to be a more cost-effective way to improve employability than investing in TVET and critical to ensure that investments into TVET actually yield desired outcomes.


Image of Thelma Obiakor

Thelma Obiakor

London School of Economics and Centre for the Studies of the Economies of Africa (CSEA)

Image of Kirsty Newman

Kirsty Newman


Executive Summary

A great deal of policy attention is paid to the role that education plays in driving employment outcomes. Most of this attention has focused on post-primary education— particularly Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). This paper sets out the less-discussed role that foundational skills, typically built through basic primary education, play in driving employability; how foundational skills affect TVET provision; and what implications this body of evidence has for education policy.

We acknowledge the need to consider how education systems build skills which will contribute to countries’ economic aspirations. However, we suggest that the dominant discourse which focuses specifically on TVET and how it can be linked to employer demands is unlikely to be successful for several reasons. Firstly, we show that foundational skills are themselves associated with economic gains for individuals and societies. This, together with the evidence showing extremely low levels of foundational skills in many countries, suggests that focusing on improving foundational skills may be a more cost-effective approach to driving employability than has been previously acknowledged. Furthermore, we show that TVET (and other later forms of education) may struggle to add value where foundational skills are not in place. Focusing large amounts of energy and resources on reforming TVET may not achieve hoped-for impacts if TVET entrants don’t have the necessary foundations to learn.

We discuss the popular policy prescription of linking TVET provision to employer needs. As well as noting our concern that this focus fails to acknowledge the binding constraint of low foundational skills, we also set out why employer demand for skills may not be a good indication of actual future skills needs. We therefore suggest a more nuanced discussion on skills for employability which acknowledges economic development goals; the skills that will be needed to achieve them; and, crucially, a country’s starting point.

We end the paper by highlighting the fact that unemployment and underemployment are generally caused by a lack of jobs, not a lack of skills. We therefore urge policymakers to be realistic about the extent to which any education policy—whether focusing on foundations, technical, and vocation skills or any other type of skills—can affect employment outcomes.

Considering the evidence presented in this paper, we suggest that policymakers in many low- and lower-middle income countries may want to consider a stronger focus on foundational skills. The major reason for focusing on foundational skills is that a quality education is a fundamental right for all children which will allow them to experience lifelong learning. This paper sets out that foundational skills will also be the first step towards achieving a more employable workforce—but also that policymakers should consider the full range of policies that need to be in place to deliver productive employment and economic growth.

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Obiakor, T. and Newman, K. 2022. Education and Employability: The Critical Role of Foundational Skills. RISE Insight Series. 2022/048.