University’s warnings about its literacy and numeracy survey were ignored by cheer leader for Gove’s reforms

Janet Downs's picture
“A survey conducted by the University of Sheffield two years ago discovered that something like 20% of 16 year-olds are leaving school functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate and in general they’re children from the most socially deprived backgrounds. That’s the status quo that the teaching unions are defending,” said Michael Gove’s champion on ITV’s Tonight (6/6/13, 9.55 mins).

But is this true?

In 2010, Sheffield University published a survey summarising literacy and numeracy test results for 13-19-year-olds in England from 1948–2009. It found that despite gaps in evidence and changes in the definition of functional literacy and numeracy during the sixty years there remained a core of young people with low literacy and numeracy skills:

“Most young people do have functional to good literacy and numeracy, but more needs to be done. In particular, about 17% of young people aged 16–19 have poorer literacy, and about 22% have poorer numeracy, than is needed for full participation in today’s society.”

So this seems to confirm that 20% of 16-19 year-olds are “functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate” if that is defined as the skills needed to fully participate in society.

Sheffield went on to say:

“That said, most young people in England do have functional skills, and those with the highest skills are up with the best in the world.”

Gove’s supporter omitted that last finding.

Another statement which the interviewee missed was a strongly-worded caveat:

“All the findings are based on the assumption that experts in the field know what other people should be able to do. Little research has been done to establish what people actually need to be able to do.”

In other words, definitions of literacy and numeracy levels are what “experts” assume rather than what the people affected actually think.

Sheffield’s figures are contradicted by Skills for Life 2011 (SfL). This research put the functional illiteracy level of 16-18 year-olds at 14% not 17%. But SfL found functional innumeracy was worse, 27% not 22%. These figures in turn are contradicted by GCSE results. In 2012, only 0.7% of entrants failed to achieve a GCSE Grade G or above in English and 1.8% failed to do so in Maths. Of course, not all school leavers take GCSE but nearly 100% of those who entered in 2012 achieved at least the threshold level for functional literacy and numeracy.

While the Sheffield survey backs up the pundit’s figures, the University issued another warning. This was against arrogance:

“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.”

But is the rest of the statement about teaching unions valid?

No. It doesn’t follow that unions, or anyone else, who criticise Michael Gove’s educational reforms are defending low literacy or numeracy levels. That’s a logical fallacy.

But it makes a good soundbite on TV.


Note to ITV: The programme described Oasis Academy as being a state school a few years ago but is now an Academy. Oasis is still a state school. All academies are state-funded schools.

*DfE School Performance Tables

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