Are 20% of our children an illiterate and innumerate underclass?

Janet Downs's picture
“…almost a third of young people leave school with poor or no qualifications, many barely literate”  reported the Observer. Amanda Platell in the Mail was blunter, “Education Secretary Michael Gove is attacked by teaching unions for describing our 20 per cent illiterate and innumerate children as an ‘educational underclass’.

But what do poor qualifications mean? Vocational exams? If so, at what level? Level one or two? GCSE D or below? Or just the bottom GCSE grades F and G? Typing “poor qualifications UK define” into Google doesn’t help. This suggests that the meaning of “poor qualifications” is very much what any one person believes it to be.

There may be no agreed definition of “poor qualifications”, but there is one for illiteracy and innumeracy. The government publication “Skills for Life” defines someone who hasn’t reached the threshold level for functional literacy as illiterate. The threshold level is Level One or GCSE Grades D-G. For numeracy the benchmark is Entry Level 3 (which is actually lower than Level One). Evidence to the Public Accounts Committee: Session 2008-9  said these levels were chosen because “that is the best approximation we have to what counts as functional competence for everyday living…”

It is unclear from the Observer article how many of the one third of pupils which the writer claims have poor qualifications are illiterate. However, Ms Platell is certain – 20 percent of our children are illiterate and innumerate. One if five, she says, forms an educational underclass.

The figures, however, tell a different story. GCSE results for 2011  reveal that 98.7% of the 649,553 candidates for GCSE English in the UK (England, Scotland and Wales) gained A*-G. Grade G is the threshold for Level One (functional literacy), therefore only the ungraded 1.3% could be regarded as illiterate. For Mathematics, 98.4% of the 772,944 UK candidates gained A*-G. 1.6% of the candidates did not gain Level One, and some of these might not be innumerate if they reached Entry Level 3 which, as I said above, is below Level One.

There will be, of course, some 16 year-olds who were not entered for GCSE English or Mathematics. According to “Skills for Life”, “some 51,000 pupils (around 8%) left school without Level 1 (GCSE grade D-G) and 39,000 pupils (6%) without Level 1 English” in 2006/7. This figure is still some way behind Ms Platell’s 20%.

The confusion has probably arisen because politicians and others talk about "good GCSEs" or "GCSE passes" as being GCSE A*-C. Some commentators who should know better interpret anything below a C as so poor it signifies illiteracy or innumeracy. This is not the case.
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botzarelli's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 10:40

Oh well, 8% innumerate and 6% illiterate is fine. What's all the moaning about?!

Actually, it is far from fine and far more deserving of scrutiny and change than the silly Amanda Platell. An easy cure would be to fiddle the Grade G mark only a very tiny bit so that there was a 100% GCSE pass rate for English and Maths and to make sure that every 16 year old was entered. Voila, there are no children leaving school illiterate or innumerate.

It should be obvious that this is no solution at all and wouldn't do anytihng for the tens of thousands of 16 year olds leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills each year but it would allow for energies to be focused on discrediting Ms Platell and the Daily Mail.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 13:26

A more detailed description of what is expected at Levels one and two can be found by following the link below. For example, Level one reading is “Read and understand a variety of text (eg a letter up to one page long, short features in a newspaper or magazine). This standard would not be achieved if Grade G English was downgraded. It has to be criterion referenced.

For a person to be able to function in modern society s/he needs to be literate and numerate. But constant overestimation of the problem suggests, as it is meant to do, that state education is failing and only a Govean “cultural revolution” will sort it out.

Botzarelli - you are correct in saying the number who don't achieve Level one is deserving of scrutiny but articles like those of Ms Platell detract attention from just that. That's why such ill-informed comments need to be countered by the facts.

It is known that the prison population has a large proportion of people who struggle with literacy (Jonathan Aitken told the BBC in 2006 that one-third of his fellow prisoners couldn’t read or write). But it is important to remember that there will always be a small minority who will not achieve Level one. The reasons are varied and can include severe educational needs, profound disability, illness, missing months of schooling for whatever reason, inability to speak English, and so on. Some of these problems can be addressed – English as a Second Language courses, for example, and lessons in basic skills in further education colleges, education in prison and so on. But some will be intractable.

What is needed is research into this 6-8% to discover who could be helped to become literate and numerate, and who would need support in adult life in order to function. That would be more useful and humane than the media making exaggerated and sweeping statements about an education underclass.

Alan's picture
Wed, 07/09/2011 - 08:10

Approximately two-thirds of people in the secure estate have issues with literacy and communication. We already have an abundance of evidence, what is needed now is action e.g. support for learning disabled parents so they are able to help their children with homework and teacher training to identify conditions such as dyslexia as early as possible.

Finally, post 16s in private CIC colleges should be receiving professional dyslexia assessments for reasonable adjustments in exams to enable progression to apprenticeships, etc.

Scally's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 00:27

My son has downs syndrome, and he can read and write to some extent. 100 years ago he would have been thrown on the scrapheap and confined to an institution. We are making huge strides ahead ...

JimC's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 06:09

"It is known that the prison population has a large proportion of people who struggle with literacy (Jonathan Aitken told the BBC in 2006 that one-third of his fellow prisoners couldn’t read or write)."

I wonder what grades they got in GCSE English?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 08:23

The prison population comprises all ages so only those who were 15 or below in 1987 when GCSEs were introduced could have taken the exam. A candidate achieving Grade G would need to satisfy the examiner that s/he had reached Level 1 (see above), so an illiterate person (whether in prison or not) would not gain GCSE G.

In 2005 the DFES found that 52% of all male prisoners and 71% of all female prisoners had no qualifications at all. Many of these would be too old to have taken GCSE.

Alan's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 10:49

By the time young people leave school with no qualifications, jobless, drunk and in prison, life’s trajectory will have been set. Its going to take and earthmoving initiative to break this cycle. Better to begin well before GCSEs.

Kenneth Clark is correct when he speaks of prison failing to rehabilitate re-offenders - the statistics are a damming indictment of society’s failure. The social construction of learning disabilities has confounded commonsense. A spectrum now exists between low criminal IQ and academic learning difference, supplemented by DSA. For example, Family Justice magistrates still rely on IQ to determine parental suitability, whilst, post 16, professionally administered dyslexia assessments depend on one’s ability to pay.

Young people are already in the prisons of their minds long before statistics are able to measure effect size. Poor behaviour/frustration should provide clues to underlying difficulties, but factors preceding school can be deep rooted. Between the statistical data are a host of interactions that form a continuum of difficulties. That’s why there is no definitive definition of dyslexia. One person’s gift is another’s disability. Co-existing conditions have an overall impact on confidence.

There are papers on brain differences and genetics, ‘the baseline’, however, the biggest influence to these predispositions is environment.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 13:45

Alan, you are correct about the "host of interactions that form a continuum of difficulties". The Literacy Trust (see post above) wrote:

"Outcomes in adult life are often the product of educational and social processes comprising a combination of influence in which literacy plays a part... Literacy problems in the prison population are often compounded by a wide range of emotional, learning and/or attention deficits."

These influences include child abuse, neglect, linguistic impoverishment in the home, uncorrected visual and hearing impairments, low non-verbal ability, impairments in empathy, and "often as a default and catch-all explanation - developmental dyslexia". The list of influences is long and I have not reproduced it all here, but only two of the influences related to education: "unskilled teaching in the junior school and mistaken conjecture about literacy practice."

The report concludes:

"Evidence suggests that offending behaviour is the result of a myriad of factors that set individuals apart from the society or social grouping they are drawn from. The issue of prisoners and crimes has always attracted a tendency to hold up a single issue as the cause and therefore solution to the problem."

I do hope the report is read by politicians and journalists who pick on one possible cause and then say that dealing with this one cause will solve the problem. It's too simplistic and nothing more than political grandstanding.

JimC's picture
Sat, 10/09/2011 - 10:45

"The prison population comprises all ages so only those who were 15 or below in 1987 when GCSEs were introduced could have taken the exam. A candidate achieving Grade G would need to satisfy the examiner that s/he had reached Level 1 (see above), so an illiterate person (whether in prison or not) would not gain GCSE G."

So you say but my question is did the people who Jonathan Aitken claimed couldn't read or write pass their English GCSE (if they were young enough to take it)?

Alan's picture
Sat, 10/09/2011 - 17:57

The average prisoner’s reading ability is about 11 years of age so, in theory, it is possible that some could achieve level 1. Surely the real issue is the use of illiterate to describe the disparity between ‘mental age’ and chronological ability.

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