To a non-educationalist this headline might not appear the most exciting news of the day, so let’s try this instead:
England’s young people are near bottom of global league table for basic skills
Or if you prefer the BBC version:
England’s young adults trail world in literacy and maths
England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Out of 24 nations, young adults in England (aged 16-24) rank 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. England is behind Estonia, Australia, Poland and Slovakia in both areas.
So now the political dog fight begins.
The minister for skills and enterprise, Matthew Hancock, said: “This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world. These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations.”
Labour hit back, saying that while in government it “drove up standards in maths and English across our schools, evident in the huge improvements we saw in GCSE results between 1997 and 2010”.
Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said: “Of course, more needs to be done and that is why a future Labour government would ensure all young people study maths and English to 18, and would overturn David Cameron’s decision to allow unqualified teachers to teach in our classrooms on a permanent basis … we see in David Cameron an out-of-touch prime minister who cannot be trusted on school standards.”
Very sorry, Mr Hunt. This really isn’t good enough: must try harder.
Perhaps something along these lines.
“As you all know, this is my very first day in this job – and I’ve been handed a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. I won’t say that my predecessor was a hard act to follow. In fact I’ll come clean. It’s time we all faced facts.
For starters, there’s no point in me waffling on about my party’s past success in driving up “standards”. By now we all realise that the so-called “standards agenda” was about nothing more than “driving up” (appalling cliche!) scores obtained in timed tests and exams, whereas this OECD study is concerned with the literacy and numeracy skills that are used by adults in everyday living and working. To quote the BBC:
This landmark study from the OECD set out to measure the level of skills within the adult population – testing actual ability in literacy, numeracy and digital skills, rather than looking at qualifications.
To be frank, throughout its time in power New Labour’s approach to education was a continuation of its predecessor’s, and the current government is following suit. In short, there has a been “a relentless pursuit of attainment” (i.e. raising scores in exams) at the expense of promoting broader forms of achievement, including real life skills; at the expense of actual enjoyment of learning, and learning how to learn independently; at the expense of vocational and practical education; at the expense of equipping young people for life and for work after school.
We’ve now been found out by the OECD, and as a country we should be ashamed that we allowed this to happen. What can I say? Sorry?
There’s no point in my political opponents using these results as a stick to beat my party. Throughout the years of the “standards agenda” they simply urged us to focus ever more relentlessly on academic attainment, and they clearly gave no more of a toss for real education and fundamental life skills than we did. When did they ever show any interest in developing young people’s resilience, self-confidence, creativity, imagination, social skills and communication skills?
I need to say sorry on behalf of my party to all those young people and teachers who had to suffer the imposition of the national literacy and numeracy “strategies”, with their daily hours of stultifying “instruction”. So many teachers told us that our attempts to micromanage the profession and impose teaching-by-numbers wouldn’t work – and it didn’t. Creative teachers hated it, and so did the students. The literacy hour prevented children reading whole books and having stories read to them in many schools. There was no real engagement with literacy or with learning maths through investigations and problem-solving. What we had was teaching to the tests and constant drilling in test and exam techniques. Which brought us to where we are now: young people who often don’t read for pleasure and who don’t know how to use mathematical skills in everyday life. Not all of them – to be sure. But far too many, especially when we see what’s been done in other countries.
We failed to ensure that from the time children first learned basic reading skills they felt motivated to read through being “hooked on books”. We have created a generation that simply doesn’t care about reading for meaning and enjoyment. We sucked the enjoyment out of literature for far too many of our young people. No wonder they turn to multi-channel digital TV, computer games and the Internet for recreation, relaxation and enjoyment. And to think we’re still one of the world’s leading nations for publishing brilliant books for young and old alike!
What we need now is a learning revolution. We need to listen to the wise words coming from bodies such as the Confederation of British Industry that have been urging us to abolish 16+ exams in order that teachers can work more creatively in order to make learning more relevant and enjoyable. We need every secondary teacher, as well as every primary teacher, to see themselves as teachers of literacy skills as well as “subject” teachers.
We need learners to see themselves as co-creators of their own personalised learning programmes. We need to listen to learners when they tell us what THEY consider relevant and important. We need them to find their own voices and we need to take notice of what they say. We need to empower and to motivate. We even need this to happen at university level. Why should undergraduates in the digital age be passive recipients instead of active learners and co-creators of stimulating and exciting forms of learning and discovery?
None of this is rocket science. Many other countries, especially Finland, have been going down this road for many years. Which is why they are now way ahead of us in these OECD results. Finland has no 16+ exams, no centralised and government-controlled inspections, no league tables and very few students suffering from burn-out and drop-out. Finland also has well-paid and highly qualified teachers, and a very well respected teaching profession that is trusted to promote its own continuing professional development and curriculum development.
The USA, on the other hand, has gone down the same dead-end route of 19th Century pedagogy and neo-liberal ‘reforms’ – with even more disastrous consequences.
We can do better, and we must do better – for the sake of all our children and for the sake of our nation. In my new role as shadow minister for education I intend to deal with realities and not with fantasies, deceptions and lies. A future Labour government will break with the bad old days of misguided aims, and no proper vision for our learners beyond mere academic success. Our young people deserve better than this from our education system.
Our apiration must be to come top of these OECD tables for literacy, numeracy, ICT skills, life skills and core work skills. Nothing else will do. Our young people deserve it and our future prosperity as a nation demands it.”
Come on, Tristram. You can do it!