Zombie stats for literacy given new life by Guardian

Janet Downs's picture
Zombie statistics, like the living dead in horror movies, just won’t die no matter how much you shoot them down. And the false statistic for literacy, or rather “functional illiteracy”, keeps on rising.

Deborah Orr, writing in the Guardian, used the fact that the summer rioters didn’t touch a book shop as ammunition to support her assertion, first made in 2006, that if 47% of pupils passed five GCSEs A*-C then it showed that 53% of pupils were “functionally illiterate”.

Ms Orr’s 53% is more than two-and-a-half times the incorrect figure of 20% which was rebuffed on this site last month. But just to make it absolutely clear to those who bandy around ever-larger numbers about illiterate school leavers, here is a short summary:

1 A person who is functionally illiterate is one who hasn’t reached the Level One threshold, defined by the Public Accounts Committee as “the best approximation we have to what counts as functional competence for everyday living…”

2 The threshold for Level One is not GCSE C. GCSE grade C is the threshold for Level Two.

3 The threshold for Level One is GCSE grade G. Only those unable to gain a GCSE grade G, therefore, can be classed as functionally illiterate.

4 In 2011, 98.7% of the 649,553 candidates for GCSE English gained A*-G. Only the ungraded 1.3% could be regarded as functionally illiterate.

1.3% does not equal 53%.

I have tried my best to drive a stake through the heart of the zombie statistic about functional illiteracy and school leavers, but I think even Professor Van Helsing would fail to nail this one.

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Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 30/10/2011 - 17:31

It's a very informative post Janet, I think your next challenge is to reconcile this analysis with what the employers are saying about the functional illiteracy of British employees - they would be closer to the 53% I think.

The other thing we need to think about is exam reporting and how it is more than a grade or % but rather a description of objective proficiency which is trusted.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 30/10/2011 - 17:42

No Ben. The challenge is for lazy journalists like Deborah Orr to refrain from propagating false statistics about literacy that lead to people like you using as it as a scaremongering tool. I've no doubt that literacy could be improved but what exactly is the point of deliberately exaggerating and repeating false statistics? This "analysis" that you speak of clearly doesn't merit much scrutiny but here you are with your vague mafia of "employers" furrowing their brows over an illiterate workforce. Perhaps if they did some of the research themselves, they might not perpetrate the rubbish that you and Deborah Orr appear to swallow.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 30/10/2011 - 18:11

Here's one of the sources I was thinking about;


I think reestablishing faith in the grades at GCSE is one of the efforts Gove should be making more of an effort with. Probably he wishes he could do more.

Alan's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 08:26

Surely the point should be made that grade G GCSEs are inefficient measures of fluency for comprehending challenging material across the school curriculum and in the workplace?

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 09:11

So the response to a dubious reading of statistics (saying anything below grade C is functional illiteracy) is to invent another even more dubious statistic (saying anything above a U isn't functional illiteracy)?

Janet's ability to be selective with her standards of evidence is still as great as ever.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 10:34

Andrew - I did not "invent" the evidence. It came from the Public Accounts Committee (2008/9) and GCSE English results (2011). There are links in the post to this evidence - all you need to do is follow them. One of the links takes readers to a chart drawn up by the Committee which shows what the levels mean in relation to functional literacy. The Committee also defined what they meant by functional literacy - this is given in the original post. and corresponds to the rather wordy OECD definition given below:

"A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community’s development."

This definition was derived from statistical standards developed by international organisations such as the IMF, OECD, Eurostat and ILO.


Ian Taylor's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 09:51

I think more prominence needs to be given to people’s stature. Some of our population are below average height. In fact research published by the Daily Mail, (and recently also reported in the Guardian), has shown that shockingly about 50% of the population are shorter than the average.

Employers organisations have been calling for an inquiry into why schools are not doing enough to make these functionally dwarf people above average height. The Secretary of State has said that this is a national scandal caused by the policies of the last Labour government.

Parents will be allowed to set up new schools which will remedy this situation. Toby Old has set up the first such school, and all the pupils will have daily cold showers to make them grow taller. Toby said, “most of the cabinet had cold showers every day at school and now they are all millionaires, so there is plenty of evidence that this will work”.

The Secretary of State has said that “bog standard” state schools are free to choose the cold showers approach if they want to, because he believes teachers are the best people to make the decisions over the curriculum. Any school that does decide to go for cold showers will receive a £200,000 increase in funding and will be allowed to add the title “What a Shower” to their school logo. The money for this initiative will come from schools not adopting the cold shower method.

Some people on the “Loony Left” have questioned this approach, and wonder if it is the best way to help all of our children reach their potential. The Labour Party have been keeping pretty quiet because they have run out of ideas on most things, and have decided to have a rest, or make a bit of cash doing lecture tours. Some senior civil servants in the Department of Shower Education, have decided to spend more time with their families.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 10:41

I would agree, Alan, that grade G GCSE demonstrates an inability to comprehend challenging material. But "functional literacy" is not about comprehending challenging material. It is having enough literacy to be able to function in normal life such as finding a plumber in a phone book. If journalists and others write about functional literacy/illiteracy then it behoves them to use the term correctly.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 11:28

"I would agree, Alan, that grade G GCSE demonstrates an inability to comprehend challenging material"

But it doesn't. Have a look at some GCSE foundation papers and their grade boundaries.

And probably worth bearing this in mind:


Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 11:35

Sorry, quoted the wrong bit there. Should have included "It is having enough literacy to be able to function in normal life such as finding a plumber in a phone book."

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 11:01

Ben - the article to which you referred said:

"The survey of more than 500 firms shows that 42% are dissatisfied with school leavers' use of English, and more than a third are concerned about numeracy. Twelve per cent of employers provided remedial literacy training for graduates."

So the survey actually showed that 58% were NOT dissatisfied with school leavers' use of English, nearly two-thirds were NOT concerned about numeracy, and 88% did NOT have to provide "remedial literacy training for graduates".

That isn't, however, a reason to be complacent - far from it. The CBI was critical - but the survey was presented as a damning indictment on schools. And there are some important gaps in the information given in the article. Were firms complaining about school leavers they had employed, in which case why did they employ someone with a low level of literacy when this was something the employer required? Or were firms complaining about the standard of applicants' letters? In which case we would need to the type of job which was attracting such a low level of applicant? Ones that are low-paid, low-skill, perhaps?

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 11:24

The point is that if I go through your contributions to this site I can find countless examples of you claiming politicians are wrong. This includes cases like Nick Gibb's comments phonics where the evidence overwhelmingly backs up the politician. Yet here you are quoting the politicians on the Public Accounts Committee as an authority.

There is simply no consistency in the standards of evidence you use. You cherry-pick. Anyone who agrees with you is an unimpeachable authority; anyone who disagrees is simply giving their opinion.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 12:11

Ben -

Thanks for flagging up this article on the CBI.

Things have come to a pretty pass if education is being seen as another service provider to businesses. Of course literacy and numeracy are important but their importance is to enhance a person’s understanding of the world and their contribution to it and that is not limited to how they interact just in the workplace. Education brings immense fulfilment in appreciating science, the arts, reading, creating things, writing, sharing and discussing experiences and these are ultimately personal and life enhancing.

John Cridland and the CBI represent the interests of businesses, including all the major banks. He said back in August that it would be “barking mad” for the government to reform the banking industry given the present uncertainties over economic recovery. This sounds like a damn good excuse for both the Tories and the CBI to let the banks go about their destructive business unhindered. It’s all very well Cridland saying his members are alarmed at the level of literacy but his organisation represents the financial services industry, whose irresponsible financial illiteracy caused this mess in the first place. It is going to be increasingly difficult now for the education system to persuade young people that a great school education, leading to higher education will open up more doors for a better paid career. Not when unemployment is going through the roof. Not when there are no job prospects. Not when young people can’t face the prospect of £55,000 university debts with no job to pay it off. Not when apprenticeships are being withdrawn. Not when the government’s schools policies emphasise that academic achievement is all and vocational or practical subjects are downgraded as third-rate, undesirable or fit only for the semi-literate.

What we should be asking is why this constant interference from the free market sector in education? This site has highlighted it again and again – the end game of the Tories’ education “reforms” is to open the door to allow for- profit making organisation to run our schools.

At the end of August, John Cridland of the CBI told the Financial Times http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/bcca2362-d013-11e0-81e2-00144feabdc0.html that “I can’t remember a time when business is more concerned about this question of social cohesion” and that “business cares about this and business knows it has got to make a contribution to improving standards in schools.” Businesses are apparently concerned that the state is ill-equipped to improve school standards on its own. This is quite a convenient stance for the CBI to take, given that the government is slashing the education budget by 60%. But under his plan businesses won’t actually provide more apprenticeships or job opportunities (this is just a “sticking plaster”) but will stage interventions designed to improve the performance of primary school pupils by sponsoring primary schools.

Well “sponsoring” sounds much better then “investing”. Either way, those blue chip companies who contribute to the coffers of the Conservative Party must be happy that their influence in education policy making will be paying them generous dividends when the privatisation of state education is well under way.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 12:18

Nick Gibb, Michael Gove, David Cameron and their SPADS and satellite outfits like the New Schools Network continually tell fibs, distort data and misrepresent facts to deceive the media and the public. This is why this government is unable to be transparent, resorting to policy discussions being had via personal emails and people like Dominic Cummings refusing to let civil servants comply with legislation to meet FoI requests. The more we are deceived, the more people will question and uncover. Incompetent and dishonest politicians have no authority. Thank goodness for democracy.

Alan's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 12:32

Point taken, Janet - journalists should present all of the facts. I guess functionality depends on how one defines normal life or personal achievement (I am writing from a disability perspective as a dyslexic).

GCSEs being derivatives of psychometric tests that are culturally biased in their standardisation of what’s expected to be achieved from a particular population can’t take into account frustrations over speed of processing or disparities between creativity and sensory difficulties. The biggest problem with standardised education is its model of best fit delivery.

It should be a major concern that ambiguity has begun to emerge over constructs of functional literacy. Acceptability appears to exist at one end of the spectrum, whereby, dyslexia is considered to be an asset to entrepreneurialism, whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, in youth offender institutions, for example, communicational difficulties bear associations with intellectual disabilities which then become actuarial measures for risk of recidivism. This situation runs parallel to what is considered to be normal life and dysfunction, exceptional people and dysfunction, educational failure or success.

For what it’s worth, I think the Government’s initiative to assess phonemic awareness by the end of KS1, along with the usual tests for word retention and spelling, is an excellent idea.

Mr Chas's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 13:43

Ben, you are of course, quite right. The employability of hundreds of thousands of our NEETS / School Leavers is a very low %. Too many have shocking English, little Maths, a dreadful manner, poor work ethic etc Most of these kids suffer from the ridiculous idea in this country ( compared to say central Europe ) that one size ( GCSE ) can fit all. It can't. What employers want from the least ( say ) 25% academic of children is a certificate that means something practical. Competance in basic Maths. Competance in basic English. How many people on here are actually recruiting in the private sector ? I did for most of my life. The standards have gone down and down. At least most kids from Secondary Moderns left school and knew how to behave at interview and in the workplace. Get a grip, you educationalists !

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 13:51

The Moser report gave one example of functional illiteracy - it was being unable to find the page reference for plumbers in the phone book. It follows, therefore, that being able to find a plumber in a phone book is a sign of functional literacy.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 13:58

Andrew - I am not sure you read my comment to Alan correctly. I was agreeing with him that GCSE grade G shows an INability to comprehend challenging material. However, you seem to be saying that GCSE foundation papers ARE challenging (no link provided). If you are correct then the 98.7% of candidates who gained GCSE A*-G are ALL capable of responding to challenging material. This would make Ms Orr's assertion about the large number of pupils who are functionally illiterate even more inaccurate.

And the link to the BBC article (2008) which showed that three years ago one marker had been censured for giving two marks to a candidate who wrote only the words "F*** off" on the English paper is hardly proof of the widespread dumbing-down of the GCSE English paper.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 14:24

As I said, I quoted the wrong part. It is the idea that GCSE English grade G shows enough literacy to be able to function in normal life that is ridiculous.

Grade G has in the past, if you'd bothered to look into it, corresponded to as little as 4 marks out of 27 in AQA coursework and 6 marks out of 54 or 4 marks out of 40 in some AQA written exams. The BBC article reported that the chief examiner for AQA had given 2 out of 27 for writing "fuck off" and suggested that another mark would have been available if it had been correctly punctuated.

I realise that I am asking you to think about what you are saying rather than search the net for people who agree with you, but given that BBC story, or given a quick look at a foundation GCSE exam, can you really claim G represents functional literacy?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 14:32

Ah - the argument re phonics again. To avoid tedium I give the link to the thread below on which I made it clear that I was neutral about the use of synthetic phonics. There is, of course, controversy around this subject and it was Nick Gibb's denial of this controversy that I was commenting on.

And it does not follow that because Gove, Gibb et al misrepresent statistics that all politicians do so. If you have evidence that the Public Accounts Committee is misleading the public about the meaning of functional literacy then I should be pleased to see it (together with a link).


Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 15:10

Here we go again.

If politicians agree with you, I have to *prove* they are "misleading the public", (and this has to be in the form of a link) even in a case where they are saying something ludicrous (like grade G at English shows a useful level of English).

However, if they disagree with you, you can condemn their opinion on the grounds that "controversy" exists even though they are correctly summing up the evidence (like Nick Gibb on phonics).

And again, when I raise the question of your use of evidence you refuse to justify what you are doing. Every time you do this Janet, you give the impression that you care little for "evidence" except as a debating tactic. Certainly, I have been utterly unable to get you to articulate any coherent principles for the use of evidence that you would apply to yourself as well as to others. Cherry-picking the evidence is annoying at the best of times; in someone who rarely puts forward any argument other than the claim that certain people's opinions are "evidence" it looks like deep indifference to the truth.

Your claim that GCSE English grade G represents functional literacy is the most obviously absurd claim to have appeared on here since that OFSTED inspector claimed that it was outrageous to suggest schools ever hid things from OFSTED inspectors.

If you want people to believe something extraordinary then you are going to have to do better than saying "prove me wrong" to anybody who asks how you managed to convince yourself. If you don't want people to believe what you are saying, and you simply want an excuse to stick your fingers in your ears when you are confronted with inconvenient realities, then can I suggest you keep those excuses to yourself rather than presenting them as contributions to policy debate?

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 15:31

Extraordinary outburst from you Old. Why should people keep their opinions to themselves? This is an open forum where comments are not edited or deleted, unlike I believe your "blog". As Rebecca Hanson pointed out to you here http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/10/how-far-down-the-egalitari... -

"Nice to meet you again on a forum where I’m allowed to post without the retinue of abusive posts/systematic deletions/random pre-moderation and bannings."

I'm beginning to wonder why you feel this despotic need to strangle dissent

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 14:47

Knowledge is to improve the mind and nurture the spirit, not provide statistics and certificates for private sector employers.

Perhaps this government's top-down, prescriptive, narrowing-of-the-curriculum policies are as much to do with stifling curiosity and questioning leadership as with opening the door even more widely for the private sector to profit from schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:12

OECD has a different idea of Level 1 when applied to reading:

"Level 1 and below imply insufficient reading skills to function in today’s societies."

OECD found that on their measure "18% of 15-year-olds in the UK do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of reading proficiency, a percentage that is around the OECD average. Excluding students with an immigrant background reduces the percentage of poorly performing students slightly to 17%."

Even on this more stringent measure, which was confirmed by a Sheffield University study in 2010, 17% is still far short of Ms Orr's 53%.

What this demonstrates is the difficulty of deciding on the functional literacy threshold and how it equates to GCSE grades. The Literacy Trust says that a functionally illiterate adult “would not pass an English GCSE”. This definition corresponds with the one from the Public Accounts Committee which, according to Andrew Old, I should not quote because the Committee comprises politicians and I have found some politicians to have been a little economical with the truth in the past. And the Moser group defined functional illiteracy as being “below Level 1 in literacy.”

Fletcher-Campbell, Reid and Soler* attempted to reconcile the different levels as follows:

Level 1/Stage 4 National Curriculum was on the low/average continuum. This level straddled the International Adult Literacy Survey levels 1 and 2 to 3. It also corresponded with NVQ Level one. Level 2/GCSE A-C = good.

Fletcher-Campbell et al also pointed out that “functional illiterate” had a technical meaning which “to a non-specialist audience” sounds as bad as illiteracy, and “possibly even worse” (p115 op cit). This is why all those who use the term should be absolutely clear what they are talking about and only use it responsibily.






*p 121 Fletcher-Campbell, Reid and Soler, “Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development: issues and concepts”, 2009, Open University

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:34

"What this demonstrates is the difficulty of deciding on the functional literacy threshold and how it equates to GCSE grades."

And yet your original post seemed to support a ridiculously low threshold as being a simple matter of fact.

Are you going to admit you were wrong?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:40

I still support the "ridiculously low threshold" as defined by the Public Accounts Committee and supported by the Literacy Trust, Moser, Fletcher-Campbell et al. I was just demonstrating that I'm not afraid to point out alternative and seemingly conflicting evidence (with links so that people can make up their own minds).

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:19

To Andrew - everyone is entitled to their opinion, but no-one can expect to have their opinion accepted unless it is backed up by evidence. And, yes, that means providing links. Ranting, rhetorical questions, unsubstantiated accusations and a tirade of abuse are no substitutes for presenting an argument in a calm and controlled manner.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:42

You appear to be pretending that to attack your constant moving of the goal posts for what is evidence is to claim that arguments should not be backed up by evidence.

Nobody is against backing up arguments with evidence. What is objectionable is your complete inconsistency about what counts as evidence and your inability to address it directly when challenged.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:53

Never mind all that dear….I’m still waiting for you to reply to Rebecca’s reply to you here:-

“Nice to meet you again on a forum where I’m allowed to post without the retinue of abusive posts/systematic deletions/random pre-moderation and bannings.”

Would you mind obliging why you are abusing the democratic state of LSN? Are you an enlightened despot?

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 18:31

By the way Old, your fake "concern" over the mentally unstable on your Twitter feed is a really nasty and dishonest way of trying to smell of roses....

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:51

Again you seem to have confused opinions and evidence. And again you seem to be searching the internet for people who agree with you. It is indeed progress that you are admitting that some of the people you have found on the internet disagreed with you, although it is disappointing that this doesn't seem to have got you to acknowledge that your original claims were deeply flawed.

But what you are missing is that at no level is any of this "evidence". And none of it would be remotely convincing to anyone who actually looked at a GCSE exam paper and grade threshold and saw with their own eyes that a grade G provides minimal evidence of literacy.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 17:59

Actually Oldie, let's get back to the point of the original post before your knickers get completely contorted round your thighs.

It was Deborah Orr's original claims that were deeply flawed and Janet was quite right to point them out. It's a question of accurate reporting and a correct communication of facts. Gnawing away as you have done like a dog with a bone in its mouth isn't going to throw people off the scent.

Anyway - one more time. Why do you censor people?

Deborah Orr's picture
Mon, 31/10/2011 - 23:17

"UK has greater variation in reading standards ... than almost every other OECD country." http://tinyurl.com/3gwmqdf

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 08:59

The wide variation in reading standards discovered by PISA doesn't demonstrate that there are over 50% of school leavers who are functionally illiterate. This is what OECD said about the perfomance variability with the UK:

"There is also significant performance variability within the UK and in general, the differences in performance within the UK are slightly larger than in other countries. For example the difference in the reading score of the top and bottom 10% is 246 score points in the UK, while for OECD countries on average it is 241. More strikingly, 77% of the between schools differences in student performance in the UK is explained by differences in socio-economic background. Among OECD countries, only Luxembourg has a higher figure (OECD average 55%)."

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/33/8/46624007.pdf (page 1)

The OECD (and the Guardian article linked by Deborah) stressed the influence of socio-economic background. The link between this and educational outcomes is regularly discussed on this site. Here is one example:


To go back to the original point: the term "functional illiteracy" is used carelessly and with no reference to what it might mean (and usually to attack the state education system). The Public Accounts Committee defined it as being below Level One (threshold GCSE grade G), while OECD defined it as being at Level One. Both claim to show what "functional illiteracy" is.

Gemma's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 09:16

I think this post gets right to the heart of it. Do you guys - Janet Downs, Melissa Benn etc. really think there is nothing wrong with the current system?

If you hand on heart really believe that everything is fine, all that's needed is support for current schools and systems, that's fine; but you must respect honest experience of teachers like Andrew Old who see something different happening.

I see an education system that is systematically broken. I talk to teachers who are broken by it and wail (privately) at the failing of our children. I see it with my own eyes, the failure to encourage, to teach, to help failing children. I think it's a tragedy and I think you are doing a huge disservice to the children of this country by trying to pretend everything is fine.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 10:00


I'm curious to know how anyone could reach the conclusion that, by questioning the government's - and a journalist's - constant perpetuation of incorrect facts and statistics one could be mistaken for claiming that the system is fine. There is a difference between acknowledging that a system needs improving and that literacy for some children can be improved and a deliberate campaign by Gove and people like Deborah Orr to exaggerate the extent of what you here call a "systematically broken" system in order to justify the expensive, divisive and risky policies which Gove has implemeted at breakneck speed.

I don' t know if Deborah Orr has opted to send her child/ren to private school, but it disheartening for democracy when the largely right wing media are happy to uncritically pump out government propaganda. Deborah Orr's own experience of apparently having been bullied at school seems to have made her fear state schools. This is unfortunate but it is never a good idea for politicians, columnists or anyone with real influence in education to shape policy based on their own personal experiences.

Where do you hang out to see this systematically broken system? I am aware of bad schools and bad teachers, but unlike you it seems I speak to teachers who are inspired by the system. I see teachers smile at how they have contributed to raising the aspirations of the children in their care. I have seen with my own eyes how teachers have succeeded in encouraging, teaching and helping disadvantaged children. Your crass polarisation of the debate adds nothing to the discussion about how current policies will segregate children in such a way that will further isolate disadvantaged children, giving more opportunity for middle class children to gain access to schools designed to further the opportunities of only the academically minded. What about everyone else? Do they rot somewhere, forgotten and abandoned when the mask of Cameron's Caring Conservative drops off and the "Let's-Take-Care-Of-Our-Lot-First" agenda is finally revealed in all its fetid glory?

A teacher Andrew Old may be, but I know many people, way more honest than him in the teaching profession, who go quietly and confidently about their business without the need to take to websites to denigrate, bully and shout down anyone who puts their hand up to ask questions. I know which teacher I'd respect more.

Gemma's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 11:12

I have three children, I have two friends who are teachers (one secondary, one primary) I have two other friends who are at different stages of teacher training. I have many friends who have children at different state schools.

Like the one I went to see last week and her 15 year old son was upstairs - why? They've sent him home again. His mum was hoping his last year at school would be different but within a week they had started to just send him home when they couldn't cope with him. This is an Ofsted Outstanding school.

I know you all knock personal experience but as I said in my original message - this is what I find, and I call it broken.

What I, and my friends find, chimes with what Katharine Birbalsingh finds and what Andrew Old finds.

I don't think all of what Gove is doing is right but something has to be done. There's been 40 years of sliding down and this has real impact on real children - it's not some academic debate about statistics. You should be welcoming possible solutions not knocking them.

Here's a well know right-winger who has noticed something is wrong http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/30/britain-talent-defic...

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 12:21

You haven't said why your friend's son was sent home other than "they couldn't cope with him". Is the school's fault or the boy's? Is it, in fact, correct to apportion blame to either party?

The "blame" culture is entrenched in American schools, where teachers and schools undergo punitive measures if the school fails to reach targets. Put crudely, if the kids don't perform well in tests, schools are closed down. If they do, teachers get paid more. The result has been evidence of widespread cheating in tests, or in the case of New York, it was revealed that the test papers were made easier so that school reformers could claim that the Charter school programme was delivering miraculous results. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/29/education/29scores.html?scp=1&sq=stand...

Since Michael Gove has been his "radical reform" on the American Charter model, expect to see the same problems being imported, with the same low level of success. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/10/the-new-schools-network-is...

Only 17% of Charters outperform regular public schools. And consider cases like the infamous one involving Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Childrens Zone Charters - On the 2010 state tests, 60% of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 % in the other. Canada also kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees. Attrition at KIPP schools, especially amongst black boys, is high. With this level of pressure being imported into British schools, I wonder how well your son's friend will cope with a school that may deem him not worthy of bothering with.

Trawl the internet and you will find many examples of failing Academies, some flagship ones bailed out to the tune of some £5-7 million so that Academization cannot be seen to fail, failure being applicable only to the maintained schools that people like Andrew Old and the coalition are keen to malign.

It is of no surprise to me that those of us who support the maintenance and improvement of comprehensive education never articulate a wish that Free Schools and Academies "fail". Neither is it a surprise that the supporters of so called "reform" take such pleasure in denigrating and publicising maintained schools - people like yourself, Andrew Old and the ever inconsistent and increasingly more histrionic Katharine Birbalsingh. You tell me which side shows the greater concern for all children's welfare, not just the favoured few.

Thanks for the link to Peter Preston’s article. I’m not sure that your claim that he is a “right-winger” adds much to his argument but allow me to add the following:-

China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea – These tiger economy nations have invested huge amounts of money into education. Cameron’s coalition is cutting our education budget by some 60%, with money being skimmed off existing schools and siphoned off into Academies and Free Schools. You do the math.

Singapore, like Finland, delivers great results. Unlike British schools, their schools are fully egalitarian, inclusive and diverse, their teachers are admired and remunerated well, they do not believe in endless testing to set schools in direct competition with each other.

China – thanks to political reforms after the death of Mao, teachers once again became highly respected members of the community. Although authoritarian, Chinese leaders have recognised that schools needs to expand curriculum (Gove is contracting it), end selection (Gove will increase it) and encourage a more creative form of learning, to break the centuries old format of Chinese learning by rote.

Finland – no top-down prescription here. No selection. No private schools. No segregation. No testing. No competition. No private sector meddling. Best schools in Europe.

I think Preston is right. We need to improve our education system but the model that Gove is following has failed to raise standards and the US languishes below us in the PISA rankings. So I would agree with you that something has to be done but Gove ain’t doing it. Perhaps doing it any other way would upset his and Osborne’s friends from the Atlantic Bridge….

Gemma's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 13:17

I don't get it. You agree there's a problem.

Why do you get so angry with Andrew Old then? What's he done about from point out at some length and in some detail what the problems are as he sees them? As far as I have read, and I haven't read everything he's written, he's not an apologist for Gove?

And Deborah Orr, it would be better to get facts straight, but you should be agreeing with the thrust of what she's saying? The system is failing kids like my friend's boy and a bit of 'despairing and urgent hyperbole', if it helps to get him and other kids like him help .... I don't have a problem with it.

It's the complacency on this site that I find chilling. We should be screaming and demanding for a better education for our kids, not desperately trying to find something out there to celebrate.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 13:46

I'm so sorry you are unable to grasp the concepts Gemma.

It is actually Andrew Old who gets so worked up and then goes on the rampage. Not just here, apparently, as Rebecca Hanson, has pointed out. He is so keen to drum up support for his interventions here that he has apparently taken to his website to urge his followers to come on to Local Schools Network to give his comments a "thumbs up". But he is not so keen in dissent on his site, where he has apparently censored people. At least here, anyone can come and have their say...

Having read up a bit on Gove's replication of the American model here in the UK, I wonder what your thoughts are about how the US system imported here might help your friend's boy? Charters haven't solved the impasse of helping challenging children in the
US so I am curious to know how in your opinion that controversial and unproven approach is workable here?

You see complacency where there is open debate, discussion and some people who question the government's methods. Trawl through the site and see how many actually say the system we have is hunky dory. Many supporters here are demanding a better education for ALL our kids and yes we are celebrating the achievements of good local schools because "screaming" as you obviously intend to do in the manner of Katharine Birbalsingh isn't going to prove that a institutionally broken system actually exists. I suspect you are in the grip of government and media whipped up frenzy. You are attributing to comments and posts made on this site a celebration of failure which
that just isn't there. Now that really is chilling.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 13:46

The thrust of what Deborah Orr was saying is this - over half of UK school leavers are functionally illiterate and this indicates a catastrophic failure of the UK state education system.

First: Deborah's figures have been found to be wildly inaccurate, even if the OECD measure of functional illiteracy is used (17-18%) rather than the Public Accounts Committee measure of below Level One (1.3% of GCSE English candidates failed to achieve Level One, ie GCSE Grade G).

Second: the UK state education system is not catastrophically failing. The statistics show this. I know that many commentators would rather appeal to emotion rather than stats but in order to assess the depth of the problem it is important to consult reliable and well-researched data. It is also important to challenge inaccurate and misleading statistics - whether by journalists or the Government.

Third: this site is not complacent. Many posters, including myself (also an "honest teacher", albeit a retired one), rage against the measures which this Government seeks to impose on the English state education system under the guise of "reform".

Fourth: it is not desperation to find something to celebrate in the UK system, but just a wish for good news to be publicised. Here are a few facts:

1 UK PISA results 2009 - UK students above-average in Science, average in Reading and Maths. Now average might not be a comfortable place to be, however it is not a sign that UK pupils are poorly educated. And they and their teachers should be praised for the science results.

2 Trends in Maths and Science Survey 2007: English pupils topped the European countries in both maths and science.

3 UK state schools outperform UK private schools when socio-economic background is taken into consideration (source OECD).

4 The Education Endowment Fund (July 2011) found that many below-floor schools are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Yet Mr Gove could close these because the schools don't meet the benchmark.

Finally, to get an honest view of English state education, then watch "Educating Essex" on Channel 4. It's the last episode this week. It's been an excellent, fly-on-the-wall documentary about a typical secondary school, warts and all. Yet the school does its utmost to teach and help the children in its care. It's inspirational.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 14:03

Just unbelievable.

Is there not some part of you that realises that you are using the sort of evidence that you would never accept from other people? Is there not some level at which you are aware that saying "everything's fine, because somebody official sounding has said so" is utterly unconvincing? Do you not have even the slightest doubt that there is something incongruous about lecturing people about the unrepresentative nature of personal experience one moment, and then citing a TV programme as reliable evidence the next?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 14:08

What is unbelievable Andrew is your inability to acknowledge your own "lecturing". While you are here, would you like to say why it is important that you ask people on your site to come to LSN in order to support you with "thumbs-up" . Would you also explain why you feel it is perfectly acceptable for you to be able to make your comments in this site, unmoderated, when you don't allow the same freedoms on your own site?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 14:21

"somebody official sounding" = OECD, a globally-respected international body which produced statistics about education following extensive research; the Education Endowment Fund - another respected organisation; the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (another trusted, international test). Those were just three of the organisations I have cited at some time. Others include Institute of Fiscal Studies, YouGov surveys and Fullfact.org, which campaigns against error in the media.

And people can judge for themselves about the reliability, or otherwise, of "Educating Essex". I believe it does give a flavour of a typical secondary school. However, people are free to disagree.

But to get back to the original point - the figures given in the Guardian were wrong and were based on a false idea of what "functional illiteracy" means.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 15:09

Having been caught cherry-picking evidence, what is the point going on about the credentials of *some* of the sources you have cherry-picked from?

We know you are good at the cherry-picking game. The problem is that you play this game with apparent indifference to the truth and you got caught here claiming something ridiculous - that grade "G" GCSE shows functional literacy. It's too late now to say "but I am arguing based on reliable evidence from reputable sources and using them to expose other people's unreliable claim". You got caught making an obviously false claim based on an unreliable source.

The question is, are you going to admit what you did, or continue to rewrite history?

Gemma's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 14:34

Allan Beavis
1. Don't be patronising Alan.
2. I don't care who started it, but the question is why do you disagree so vehemently with what he's saying, never mind if he has hissy fits (which I haven't noticed). He's pointing out problems - you should be interested and hopefully respectful.
3. I can't defend Gove - I've got an SEN kid and they are probably going to be disadvantaged by the academy status of the local secondary school. But at least he's doing something. No reform is going to be perfect, and maybe academies can help some kids.
4. This site is set up to celebrate the achievements of local schools - that's what it's stated aim is - you don't put posts up that are critical, not that I've seen anyway. My views are formed by what I've seen with my own eyes in the last five years. There is a problem, a huge systemic problem, Peter Preston points it out and you've previously agreed with him.

Janet Downs
1. I don't doubt they're inaccurate but it doesn't mean the thrust of what she says is wrong. (Nearly 1 in 5 is pretty appalling)
2. See above link to Peter Preston, which Allan Beavis agreed with. There are lots of different ways to cut stats.
3. But by raging against change you will be seen to be defending the status quo.
4. By quoting these are you are saying there's no problem? See point 2. about Peter Preston, which Allan Beavis agrees with above.

All of these points taken together - challenging change, carefully choosing statistics, apparently defending 18% illiteracy rates, create the impression that you see the current system as without fault and any change to be unwelcome.

Finally - I've never seen the programme but I was looking at an online discussion of it and I thought it was really illuminating that the teachers thought it was wonderful and the parents were shocked and appalled - take from that what you wish.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 14:53


Please don't cherry pick what I said about agreeing with Peter Preston in order to make it look as if I am agreeing with you and him that there a "huge systematic failing". I actually qualified agreement by saying this:-

"I think Preston is right. We need to improve our education system but the model that Gove is following has failed to raise standards and the US languishes below us in the PISA rankings. So I would agree with you that something has to be done but Gove ain’t doing it. Perhaps doing it any other way would upset his and Osborne’s friends from the Atlantic Bridge…."

You appear to share Orr and Old's tendency to distort and misrepresent facts or opinions, without making any contribution to why you think the failed American model has any realistic chance of working in the UK.

Take from that what you will.

Gemma's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 15:04

My point is that you do agree that we need to improve our education system - so you
disagree with Janet Downs rosy picture of statistics. Depending on what you think needs improving you may even agree with Andrew Old about a few things.

The system needs improving - we can all agree on that - shall we leave it at that for now?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 15:17

No Gemma.

I have already said that the education system needs improving but I question whether Gove's way provides the best solution because it has failed in America. This does not mean that I believe it is broken. Please do not put words into my mouth - I do not disagree with Janet Downs; neither do I think she has painted a "rosy picture" of statistics. That is how YOU wish to interpret it. Janet Downs merely corrected a serious error in Deborah Orr's article.

I have no idea if I would agree with Andrew Old on anything, simply because he appears to be the sort of man who would lock himself in a small room and pick an argument with himself just for the hell of it.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 01/11/2011 - 15:58

I thought this letter (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/31/educational-standards-ca...) in the Guardian was very incisive:

"As was made clear by both Bercow (2008) and Lamb (2009) in their reports to government, the underlying causes of illiteracy frequently lie with speech, language and communication difficulties, affecting 50% of children from socially deprived backgrounds, and 7% of children entering school, the most common special need at that point (42% of children with SENs). By secondary age, emotional and behavioural difficulties are the most common special need (38% of children with SENs).

Unmet language needs seem to have a knock-on effect; poor behaviour often results from the child's difficulty in understanding what is going on. Despite the best efforts of the National Oracy Project and its successors, speech and language therapists, and teachers, UK governments have failed consistently to give primacy to establishing good levels of language development as the foundation for literacy. How I wish Orr had devoted some of her article to this critical relationship."

I think the danger of Orr's rhetoric and others is that it misses the point; it can lead to teachers forcing weak readers to "read" texts that they don't connect with, making them feel demotivated and demoralised.


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