The 3 Rs – Reading, Rioting and Recommendations

Janet Downs's picture
“Primary and secondary schools failing to raise the literacy rate of a child to an age appropriate minimum standard should receive a financial penalty to cover the cost of raising their attainment as they move on to a new provider”, so says the Riots Panel Final Report.

This headline-grabbing recommendation drew attention from the many worthwhile comments in the report including the importance of youth work, the value of good quality careers guidance and identifying school leavers likely to become neither in education or employment (NEETs). However, the suggestion that schools are fined if children don’t reach an “age appropriate minimum standard” is problematic.

First, the report doesn’t define what “age appropriate standard” is. Is it National Curriculum Level 4? Is it the expected level of progress as laid down by the Department for Education? Is it functional literacy? If so, what is the agreed definition of functional literacy?

Secondly, if secondary schools receive money from the budget of primary schools in order to raise attainment to the age appropriate standard, what would happen if the secondary school failed to raise the child’s achievement sufficiently? What organisation would receive fines from secondary schools? And what would happen to the money attached to a NEET – the very people likely to need help with literacy?

The report said that a Sheffield University 2011 study had found “a fifth of school leavers have the literacy levels at or below that expected of an 11 year old.” But the 2010* (not 2011) report actually said this:

“The reading, writing and numeracy attainments of this age group [13-19] at the top end are among the best in the world… Overall, the data suggest that average attainments in all three areas have improved over roughly the last decade. Most young people do have functional to good literacy and numeracy, but more needs to be done. In particular, about 17% of young people age 16-19 have poorer literacy…than is needed for full participation in today’s society.”

So, 17% not the quoted 20%. The Leitch Report put the number of functionally illiterate adults (16-65) even lower at 15%. And “Skills for Life” found that 6% of pupils left school in 2006/7 without achieving the threshold level for literacy.

And yet the figure for functional illiteracy is still misrepresented as being between 20% and 53%. FullFact found that the 20% figure appeared in headlines as recently as three days ago.

If schools are to be fined for every school leaver who doesn’t achieve a particular standard then a definition is urgently needed. The Sheffield report ends with a warning that literacy had 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.”

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

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 10:47

I believe it was the head of the basic skills agency (I haven't checked) who said a few years ago, with tongue in cheek, that he looked forward to the day when he would be able to declare 100% of the British population illiterate - so vague and so many were the definitions of illiteracy.

Of course,like poverty, definitions of illiteracy must be relative and will change over time,particularly as other countries seek to improve their standards.

But as Janet points out much of the comment is inaccurate. Presumably the 17% quoted by Janet includes- the statistics normally do- those absent from national tests at 11 and 16. Some of these would have scored poorly anyway but others would not .

Then there are the 14% children who only speak English as a second language : some may struggle in English but may be perfectly fluent in their first language .

Then again whenever, the issue comes up for debate online or elsewhere, lots of people claim they left school in 1942,52 or whenever and no one (apparently in the whole of the UK) left school then unable to read or write fluently)

Apart from the obvious question as to how they would know, there is abundant evidence that any national standards set were a world below level 4 at KS2 and that actually significant numbers did not achieve what we would regard today as basic literacy and numeracy .

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 11:30

The Sheffield literacy study cited above said this concerning the changing standards for assessing literacy over years: "...since criteria for judging both literacy and numeracy appear to have become more demanding in recent years, steadily or gently rising and even quite flat graphs can be seen as a success story.”

In other words, if the criteria has risen over time then a slight rise or even no rise in the numbers achieving this more demanding standard can be regarded as a success.

The writers of the report, despite assessing that 17% of young people had poor reading skills, summed up as follows: "Before leaving the topic of criteria and standards, the point must be made that most young people in England do have functional skills in both literacy and numeracy, and that those with the highest skills are up with the best in the world."

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 11:52

The problem is made worse when commentators apply the figures for adult literacy (ages 19-65) to school leavers. - this is commonly given as 20%. But the Government's own report, Skills for Life, found that only 6% school leavers left without reaching the threshold of basic literacy in 2006/7.

6% is a long way from the 20% cited by the Riot Report which was an incorrect figure in any case - the source given (Sheffield literacy study) gave a figure of 17%. In July 2007, the then Government announced a new objective to help 95% of the adult population of working age to achieve functional literacy and numeracy by 2020. While it may be difficult to raise the literacy levels of people who have been out of school for years, if not decades, if the figure of 6% of pupils leaving school without basic literacy continues or even falls, then the target of 95% could be eventually be reached.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.