Adult literacy and numeracy in New Zealand: A regional analysis

Publication Details

This report analyses the distribution of literacy and numeracy skills among people aged 25 to 65 in New Zealand in 2006, using data from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey. It investigates whether there were geographical concentrations of people with higher literacy and numeracy and with low literacy and numeracy. Three key factors provide a good account for the distribution of high and low literacy and numeracy: completed education, first language (English or not), and computer use, especially at work. The factor which most closely paralleled the regional distribution of literacy and numeracy was the percentage of people in a region using a computer at work. This report builds on the analysis set out in Adult literacy and numeracy in New Zealand: Key factors.

Author(s): Chris Lane, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 1: Summary

This report explores the geographical distribution of literacy and numeracy skills among people aged 25 to 65 in New Zealand in 2006. It investigates whether there were geographical concentrations of people with higher literacy and numeracy and with low literacy and numeracy.

The populations of North Shore City and Rodney District, and the Wellington region were found to have higher skills, and Counties-Manukau lower skills, than the norm.

Auckland City did not have higher literacy and numeracy levels in spite of a high education, occupation and industry profile. Populations in rural areas, and some provincial regions, had levels of literacy and numeracy roughly equivalent to main urban centres, in spite of education, occupation and industry profiles that indicate that skill levels would be expected to be lower.

Three key factors provide a good account for the distribution of high and low literacy and numeracy:
  • computer use, especially at work
  • completed education
  • first language (English or not)

The computer has become a key literacy and numeracy tool. Broadly, work computer use or non-use can be seen as dividing jobs into those requiring and those not requiring higher literacy and numeracy. Home computer use was associated with greater involvement in personal literacy activities.

These three key factors account for the unexpected results, as well as more predictable findings.

Of the three key factors, the one which most closely paralleled the regional distribution of literacy and numeracy was the percentage of people in a region using a computer at work.

Framework for analysis

This report is based on the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey 2006, and analyses regional variation in English prose literacy and numeracy among people aged 25-65. People in this age range have relatively stable residence and most have completed secondary or tertiary education and are in employment. Three different geographical classifications are used:

  • a detailed breakdown into 13 regional units
  • two broad regional groupings (the group consisting of the Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago regions, compared with the rest of New Zealand)
  • urban/rural profile as defined by Statistics New Zealand

The literacy and numeracy measures used for the first two classifications were the percentages of people aged 25-65 with higher English prose literacy and with higher numeracy (where 'higher' refers to the international standard cognitive levels 3 to 5 used in ALL analyses). The measures used for the urban/rural profile were mean prose literacy and numeracy scores.

Regional variation in literacy and numeracy

In the detailed regional analysis, the averages for comparison were the percentages of people with higher prose literacy and with higher numeracy in New Zealand as a whole. Two regions were significantly above average in terms of both the prose literacy and numeracy measures, namely North Shore-Rodney (North Shore City and Rodney District) and the Wellington Region. One region, Counties-Manukau, was significantly below average in both prose literacy and numeracy, and one region, Waitakere City, was significantly below average in prose literacy but not in numeracy.

In the analysis by broad regional grouping, the 'metropolitan' grouping of the Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago Regions had significantly greater percentages of people aged 25-65 with higher prose literacy and with higher numeracy than the rest of New Zealand. Most of these differences were concentrated in the 45-65 age group.

The analysis by urban/rural profile compared rural areas and two types of urban area, main or satellite urban areas, and independent urban areas. Independent urban areas can be described approximately as towns beyond commuting range of a main urban area. There were no significant differences in the measure of prose literacy among the three area types. However, there was a significantly lower mean numeracy score in independent urban areas on the one hand, compared with main or satellite urban areas on the other; while the mean numeracy score in rural areas was not clearly distinct from either category of urban area.

Key factors in regional variation

Completed education was one of the key factors related to the variation in prose literacy and numeracy. In general, the greater the percentage of people in a geographical area with upper secondary or tertiary education, the greater the percentage of people with higher prose literacy and numeracy. However, there were a number of geographical areas where the percentage of people with upper secondary or tertiary education was significantly below average, but the prose literacy and numeracy rates were average. These were Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Manawatu-Wanganui and the South Island apart from Canterbury and Otago. The same applied in rural areas when compared with main or satellite urban areas. There was one region (Auckland City) where the percentage of people with upper secondary or tertiary education was significantly above average, but the prose literacy and numeracy measures were average.

These results can be explained by reference to two other key characteristics associated with higher prose literacy and numeracy: having English as a first language, and using a computer at work.

The geographical areas where the percentage of people with upper secondary or tertiary education was below average were ones where the percentage of people with English as a first language was above average. On the other hand, Auckland City had a percentage of people with upper secondary or tertiary education which was above average but a percentage of people with English as a first language which was below average. In all these cases the effects of education and first language were in opposition and approximately cancelled each other out.

Computer use at work broadly identifies people in jobs requiring extensive literacy and numeracy activities (as opposed to people who were either not employed or employed in jobs with lower literacy and numeracy requirements) and so is an indicator of higher literacy and numeracy skills. Work computer use was only moderately correlated with education: people with tertiary education were more likely than others to use a computer at work but 40 per cent of work computer users had no tertiary education.

The geographical areas which were significantly above average in terms of prose literacy and numeracy were the ones where at least two of the three key characteristics (upper secondary or tertiary education, English as a first language, work computer use) were above average. These geographical areas were North Shore-Rodney, Wellington Region, and the grouping of the Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago Regions compared with the rest of New Zealand.

Similarly, geographical areas where at least two of the key characteristics were significantly below average were likely to have below average numeracy. This was the case for Counties-Manukau and independent urban areas compared with main or satellite urban areas. For Counties-Manukau, all three of the key characteristics were below average, and in this region the measure of prose literacy was below average as well. Independent urban areas had below average levels of education and work computer use, and had below average numeracy (but not prose literacy) in spite of having an above average percentage of people with English as a first language. The exception to this generalisation was the South Island apart from Canterbury and Otago, which had below average levels of education and work computer use (and an above average percentage of people with English as a first language), but had average numeracy (and prose literacy).

Other geographical areas, which did not have at least two key characteristics significantly above or below average, had average measures for prose literacy and numeracy. The one exception to this was Waitakere City, where the measure for prose literacy was significantly below average, even though only one of the key characteristics (English as a first language) was significantly below average.

Of the three key characteristics, the one which most closely mirrored the pattern (in terms of average and above and below average) of prose literacy and numeracy was computer use at work. In fact, for the geographical areas compared in this report, this mirroring was almost exact for numeracy (the one exception being the South Island apart from Canterbury and Otago), while there were two exceptions for prose literacy (Waitakere City had average work computer use but below average prose literacy, and independent urban areas had below average computer use but average prose literacy). This may be because this characteristic relates most closely to respondents' recent circumstances, while first language and education are more distant parts of the respondents' backgrounds in general.

Other factors

The geographical areas where prose literacy and numeracy were significantly above average (North Shore-Rodney, Wellington, the metropolitan grouping, and main or satellite urban areas) were in general the areas which were also significantly above average in terms of the percentages of people who were managers, professionals or technicians, the percentages of people who worked in finance, business or community services (including education and health), and the percentages of people with personal incomes of $40,000 or more. (The one exception to this pattern was Auckland City, which was above average in these three characteristics but average in terms of prose literacy and numeracy, reflecting its above average percentage of people whose first language was not English).

However, geographical areas which were significantly below average in terms of occupation, industry or income were not necessarily significantly below average in measures of prose literacy or numeracy. The areas which fitted this description were Northland, Counties-Manukau, Waikato, the South Island apart from Canterbury and Otago, and rural areas (compared with main or satellite urban areas). Of these areas only Counties-Manukau was below average (for both prose literacy and numeracy), while the others were average (for both prose literacy and numeracy). This suggests that in these average areas, people with higher prose literacy or numeracy were spread across a relatively wide range of occupations and industries and could not necessarily earn above average incomes.

Limitations of the analysis

Because the analysis is based on survey and not census data, it is not possible to produce results for small geographical areas. It is likely that there were localised pockets of high and low literacy and numeracy, but that these were balanced out within the regions used in this study, giving rise to a large number of regions with 'average' literacy and numeracy.

This observation applies in particular to the category 'rural areas' which includes areas on the outskirts of major urban centres through to areas remote from any urban settlement. There could be significant variations in literacy and numeracy within this category but it has not been possible to subdivide this category given the relatively small number of respondents residing in rural areas.