Poor skills are our responsibility. All of us.

3rd December 2013

PIACC, the OECD survey of adult skills which came out a few weeks ago, showed, in no uncertain terms, where England and N Ireland were located in the ‘league table’ of adult literacy, numeracy and IT skills, in relation to 23 other countries. Those results were not unexpected to anyone who works with adults with poor basic skills or to those of us working on national policy.  However, there were many people who used the PIACC report to lay blame at the foot of previous Governments or indeed the current Government.


The same blame game is, of course, happening today with the publication of the PISA results. These results show that the UK’s young people have average reading, science and maths skills, but much poorer skills than their peers in many other countries. Today’s results show that the UK is – out of 65 territories across the world – 26th for maths, has fallen from 16th to 21st in science and is up from 25th to 23rd in reading.


Leaving aside, for the moment, issues with the assessments themselves, and the methodology of PISA, there is no doubt that our young people are not as well equipped as their peers in many other nations in what we could call the basics. The most cursory of glances at research data shows the number of young people who leave school with poor skills (whether we think a GCSE is the correct proxy or not). We know that there are 4-year-olds starting school who don’t know how to share a book. We also know that children going to secondary school without the necessary skills will very quickly fall even further behind. Too many children leave school too early and then find themselves out of work, with no chance of a fulfilling career and dangerously close to living on the margins of society.


Only last week, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that getting Britain higher up the international tables for literacy and numeracy was one of his top three priorities for the country for the next 10 years. Now is the time for all the political parties to come together – with the same urgency and prominence they have given to energy prices – to think about how to solve this issue rather than wasting time and money on apportioning blame.


Here are four ideas for improving children and young people’s performance in schools:


  1. Young people who have failed at school will not suddenly succeed by being asked or made to take part in something they have already failed at – we have to find new ways to reach and motivate them.
  2. We must understand that what happens in the first 3 years of a child’s life has the most overwhelming effect on their future performance. Parents who know how to support their children’s development must be a number one issue and this isn’t through just teaching ‘Parenting Skills’. It can be achieved through developing parents’ understanding of the value of learning. As Alison Wolf said in The Sunday Times – “It is not just about better teachers, it is also about the home environment. If you are growing up in Seoul or Shanghai, you go home from school to a family that cares desperately about education, no matter what its social standing is.”
  3. Schools cannot do it all on their own. Children spend less than 15% of their time in school. We have to stop blaming teachers and make use of what parents, the community and employers can offer as well. Employers who find ways to expose young people to the world of work help develop motivation and an appreciation of how the skills they are learning can lead to a great career.
  4. Every school must engage all their parents in learning. Family Learning develops the skills of children and adults, helping to break the intergenerational cycle of poor basic skills, and develops a culture of families who are positive about learning.

While there is a need to take these results seriously, there is also a health warning we must be aware of. The PISA results are based on two hour assessments; based on questions that not all young people had to answer, and many countries results had, for example, no reading assessments at all. And some questions were removed or changed because of cultural bias.


Let’s take blame out of the equation, and take a step back and agree that this in an endemic, ingrained issue in the UK, and has been for many, many years.  It is not going to be solved in a generation, through phonics or GCSEs, through Functional Skills alone. We must pull together, and this means government departments as well as providers, teachers and employers, if we are going to help this and the next generation of children to get the skills they need for prosperous and fulfilling lives.