“…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.