Autumn Statement: Telegraph uses it as excuse to bash education and misses much of what the Chancellor said about young people

Janet Downs's picture
‘Young people must improve their maths and English skills or lose their benefits, the Chancellor has said.’

Daily Telegraph 5 December 2013

Reporting on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the Telegraph wrote: ‘Mr Osborne said that people without basic maths or English have “limited chance” of staying off welfare, and that young people will have sign up to more study in those subjects “from day one.”’

But what is meant by “basic maths or English”?  The Office for National Statistics says it’s Level One (GCSE grades D-G or equivalent) but Education Secretary Michael Gove thinks it means GCSE C and above.

So, will unemployed young people without GCSE C and above in Maths or English lose benefits unless they enter training?

The Telegraph’s unsure.  It speaks about “basic GCSE knowledge” but doesn’t make it clear whether the Chancellor shares the opinion of the Education Secretary that anything below GCSE C is sub-basic.

But the Telegraph departed from discussing the Statement to tread a well-worn path.  The paper said employers regularly moan about school leavers’ literacy and numeracy levels.  But employers’ satisfaction rose in 2013.  The majority find no fault with schools leavers basic skills.  The OECD Adult Skills Survey* showed young adults “scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in international tests”, the article said.     It ignored the OECD PISA results published this week.  These showed UK 15 year-olds weren’t trailing the world but performing at the OECD average in reading and maths.  Presumably these results weren’t bad enough for the Telegraph’s political correspondent.

Did the Chancellor clarify what he meant by “basic” in his speech?  No, he didn’t.  He was right to say those with few or no qualifications stand more chance of being on benefits – this is particularly true in times of high unemployment.   But a clear definition of “basic” was missing.

The Chancellor did announce some strategies to help young people.  Funding Job Centres to do more to help 16-18 year-olds who aren’t in education or training is a positive move.  So is the increase in the number of higher apprenticeships.

But the Statement was preceded by questions about the 27% of employers paying less than the apprenticeship minimum wage.  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Jo Swinson, announced ways to tackle non-compliance and abuse of zero-hours contracts.   These measures could be undermined, however, if the proposed work experience or community service offered to young people who’ve been unemployed for more than six months is exploitative and has little value.  The Government’s previous “back to work” schemes were judged legally flawed in October.  

Other measures announced by the Chancellor included cutting National Insurance contributions for under-21 year-olds earning less than £813 to encourage employers to take on young people.  But similar initiatives haven’t brought about the expected positive effects, The Work Foundation found.  It argues the cost to the Treasury could be better spent elsewhere such as funding high-quality careers guidance.

But not much of this was mentioned in the Telegraph’s article.  It was just another excuse to bash education in England.


* The Telegraph’s comment about results being at the bottom of the industrialized world is a slight exaggeration.  Only 23 countries took part.  It’s true English 16-24 year-olds did poorly in the Skills Survey but the results are contradicted by PISA 2012 and TIMSS 2011.  See FAQs above How did England do in the 2013 Adult Skills Survey? and Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables? for more detail.
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