12 August 2006

Literacy - what are you talking about?

Of the 30 OECD countries, the UK was second only to the United States in the adult illiteracy table (Source OECD). In what is a horrendous case of government waste, I would like to note that UK government spending on education (as a % of all government expenditure) is well over double the OECD average.

The following excellent speech in the Commons from the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire Andrew Selous sums up my views;

"If about one in five or one in seven of our nation’s children cannot handle basic reading and writing and basic numeracy—in some parts of the country, the figure is even higher, at 40 per cent —that is unbelievably serious. For goodness’ sake, what have children been doing in our schools for the 11 years between the ages of five and 16 if they leave unable to read properly? Looking at the issue from first principles, it strikes me that when such a problem is identified when children leave lower school or primary school, there should be intensive—almost exclusive—concentration on teaching them to read and write. What is the point of taking them on and teaching them history, geography, religious education and all those other subjects if they cannot read and write properly?
I gather that in some schools in the Caribbean, and even in places such as Ghana, children do not move up a year unless they have mastered the basics of that year. I spoke earlier this week to our shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who has been instrumental in bringing the teaching of synthetic phonics into greater national focus. All credit to the Government, as they have taken on board many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He told me that it is possible, through an intensive 10-week course, to give any seven-year-old child basic reading skills.
Earlier in the debate, we heard about antisocial behaviour from my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Castle Point. If we cannot get these basics right in our schools, what hope do we have of conquering problems such as antisocial behaviour if children aged 16 or older leave without the basics—being able to read and write and get a job of any sort in the employment system?
Why is there no sense of anger about that? Why are MPs not picketing their local directors of education? Why are we not having tough conversations with heads outside this House? Why does this issue not dominate Education and Skills questions? The Public Accounts Committee’s report last year, “Skills for Life: Improving adult literacy and numeracy”, drew the following hugely understated conclusion about raising basic levels of literacy and numeracy:
“a large proportion of its resources”-those of the skills for life strategy—
“are taken up by recent school leavers, many of whom might reasonably have been expected to gain their qualifications at school.”
Given all the debates that we have had this week about structure, funding, independence and involving other organisations, we must get on top of that issue. We must drive down the percentage of children who leave school at 16 without those basic skills. Unless we can do that, we will not have a hope of dealing with the problems of antisocial behaviour about which we have heard this afternoon, or of increasing our national productivity and competing effectively with other countries in Europe, and with India, China and other countries in the far east, as we need to do."

Who could disagree? Whilst this failure remains achieving a fairer society will be like walking up a downward escalator.


Croydonian said...

High time we took on the US system whereby children do not move up a year until they have reached the required level. That, after all, is the difference between education and schooling, the latter all too often meaning little more than containment.

Peter Smallbone said...

Also maybe it's time we seriously considered vouchers for schooling. The closer you connect people with the money they're spending, the more people get interested in value for money. Having an illiterate school leaver certainly isn't value for money.

Ultimately, the responsibility for adequate levels of literacy is as much down to parents as it is down to teachers and local authorities. You can't teach someone who's not there, and who's unruly and disruptive when they are.

Praguetory said...

As you could probably guess I am wholeheartedly in favour of vouchers. Joe Public isn't and our lot aren't exactly going to lead in this area. Nevertheless, I will blog about this in the near future.