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Coffee House

England named worst in developed world for literacy. So yes, school reform is needed.

29 January 2016

5:41 PM

29 January 2016

5:41 PM

Today’s OECD study of basic skills ranks England lowest in the developed world for literacy, and second lowest for numeracy. We knew that our schools might struggle to compete with the likes of Singapore and South Korea, but this puts the problem in a whole new perspective. It’s the delayed results of a study taken four years ago where 5,000 in each country were sampled so, to some extent, it’s a hangover from the days when a far greater share of children left school without five decent passes. But the report also found that England has three times more low-skilled people among those aged 16-19 than the best-performing countries like Finland, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands. One in ten of all English university graduates have low literacy and numeracy skills. 

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It does acknowledge that ‘England has in recent years adopted a wide-ranging set of measures to address the literacy and numeracy weaknesses of young adults at 16-19 and beyond’. These include raising the compulsory participation age to 18, making maths and literacy courses a requirement in 16-19 education, and measures to improve maths and literacy teaching. Most of these measures formed part of the reforming mission of Michael Gove as Schools Secretary.

Even though Gove seems to have adapted his approach since his party leadership decided he was too toxic to stay in the Education job in the run-up to the 2015 election, his mission to drive up school standards and not accept the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ looks entirely justified, in spite of the howls of the teaching unions (who seem very quiet today). 

Labour’s Lucy Powell today released a statement saying the report showed that driving up standards must be the priority, but complaining that the government wasn’t recruiting enough good English and maths teachers, rather than complaining that a rigorous focus on standards was unfair. 

It will take years before the Gove reforms can be evaluated: the OECD says ‘it is too early to evaluate the success’ of what he was doing, but says his ‘objectives are clearly the right ones.’ The  tables published today show that he wasn’t being the villainous pedant that his enemies in the education world often painted him as. Pedantry suggests nit-picking at minor problems. Young people managing to go as far as university with poor basic maths and English skills is of a rather different order.

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