Are 20% of school leavers illiterate?

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No.  Illiteracy means unable to read and write.  Illiteracy is often confused with "functional illiteracy".  Functional illiteracy means being able to read and write but below the level of competence needed for everyday living.  Someone who doesn’t reach this basic level, called the threshold level, is fuctionally illiterate.  According to the Government the threshold level is Level One.  Any school leaver who gains a GCSE G or above in English has reached Level One.  Pupils who gain GCSE C or above in English have reached Level Two.

So how many pupils did not gain at least a GCSE G in English in Summer 2012?   Only 0.7%% did not gain this basic grade.  So, only 0.7% % of pupils entered for GCSE English in Summer 2012 failed to reach Level One*.  In the November 2012 resits, 0.2% failed to reach Level One*.   In 2011, 1.3% of GCSE English candidates were awarded a U.  The number of pupils, therefore, failing to reach Level One in GCSE English in 2012 is lower than in 2011.

There will be some 16 year-olds who were not entered for GCSE English at all. According to the Government's Skills for Life Survey in 2011, 15% of 16-18 year-olds didn't reach Level One.  This is a far higher figure than the percentage that didn't reach Level One in GCSE English exams in 2011 (1.3%).  However, there may be good reasons why pupils were not entered for GCSE.  Reasons can include severe educational needs, profound disability, illness, missing months of schooling for whatever reason, inability to speak English, and so on.

Another figure for functional illiteracy comes from the Programme for International Student Assessment results for the UK in 2009.  According to the OECD, which administers the PISA tests, “Students who do not attain the PISA baseline proficiency Level 2 in reading lack the essential skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society."  So PISA Level 2 is the same as the Government's Level 1 - the threshold of functional literacy.

How many UK pupils did not reach PISA Level 2 in reading in 2009?  The answer is 18%.  Note: this figure is for "functional illiteracy" NOTabsolute illiteracy.  The figure for the UK is slightly less than the OECD average of 19%.  Other countries with the same level of functional illiteracy among 15 years-olds as measured in PISA tests are Ireland, Sweden, USA, Germany and France.

A Sheffield University report** came up with a figure of 17% in 2010: "In particular, about 17% of young people age 16-19 have poorer literacy...than is needed for full participation in today's society."  But the Sheffield academics gave a warning: literacy has been defined by “experts” based on what they think other people should be able to do rather than on surveys about what people actually need to be able to do for their own purposes. The report ends:

“Meanwhile, all ascriptions of poor literacy and numeracy, whether to 13- to 19-year-olds or to adults, should be made with due humility – those who have the power to decide what other people should be able to do have imposed their views on those who do not.”

So illiteracy, functional illiteracy and poor literacy and numeracy are terms which are volatile and can vary according to the person doing the judging.  Based on GCSE results the number of school leavers who are functionally illiterate is less than 1%.  But this of course doesn't include pupils who didn't take GCSE.  The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Skills for Life Survey 2011 gave a higher figure of 15%.  Sheffield University said 17% but warned that definitions of "functional illiteracy" should be made with humility - those who are said to be "functionally illiterate" may not think themselves to be so.  PISA put the figure higher at 18%.

Conclusion: claims that 20% or more of children leave school unable to read and write are false.  Being "unable to read and write", ie being "illiterate", is not the same as "functional illiteracy" ie the ability to read and write but not to a sufficiently high standard to be able to cope with everyday life.  The figures for functional illiteracy among school leavers ranges from less than 1% to 18%.  Confusing the two terms "illiteracy" and "functional illiteracy" is misleading.

*GCSE results for English/English Language for 2012 and other years downloadable here.

***Sheffield University 2010 report,” THE LEVELS OF ATTAINMENT IN LITERACY AND NUMERACY OF 13- TO 19-YEAR OLD IN ENGLAND, 1948–2009” downloadable here

Updated 16 February 2013