Gove’s “crusade” to end illiteracy – is it a pseudo war?

Janet Downs's picture
“Tories plan manifesto pledge to end illiteracy”

The Times, 7 June, 2014 (behind paywall)

Education Secretary Michael Gove will announce a “moral crusade” to ensure 95% of the population are literate and numerate in a speech to Policy Exchange, wrote the Times. But what’s the truth about illiteracy and innumeracy in the UK?

First, Gove doesn’t make it clear what he means. Absolute illiteracy and innumeracy mean a complete inability to read or calculate. Functional illiteracy and innumeracy mean having some literacy and numeracy but not enough to function in a modern world.

It is likely Gove means reducing the number of school leavers who are functionally illiterate or innumerate – but it has more political clout if he hints at absolute illiteracy. It makes his “crusade” seem nobler.

But absolute illiteracy and innumeracy is low in the UK – the CIA puts illiteracy at just 1%. So what are the figures for functional literacy/numeracy?

The official threshold for functional literacy is a Level 1 qualification*, the equivalent of GCSE grades D-G. In 2013, 92.7% of GCSE candidates in English gained grade G or above – that’s not too far off Gove’s 95% target. In state schools only, the figure was higher: 96.2%. That's already above Gove's 95% target.

For functional numeracy, the threshold is Entry Level 3**, the equivalent of the level expected from an 11 year-old. GCSE Grade G is, of course, higher than Level 4 at Key Stage 2. Last year, 95.5% of all GCSE maths candidates gained grade G or above (the pass rate in state schools was 96.3%). Again, this is above Gove’s objective of 95%.

Of course, not all pupils enter GCSE. In 2013, entry rates were 96.6% for English and 97.6% for maths. Over 95%, then, entered GCSE English and maths. And in state schools over 95% of these achieved GCSE G or above in English and over 95% achieved GCSE G or above in maths.

It appears, then, that Gove's "moral crusade" is rather a pseudo war.

Gove has previously said millions left school without the basics – this was untrue. Now he’s concentrating on the number of children leaving primary school who haven’t reached the expected Level 4. But failing to reach Level 4 at age 11 doesn’t mean these pupils won’t gain at least a G at age 16.

To highlight just how dumb he thinks young people in England are, Gove quotes from the OECD Adult Skills Survey. Young people aged 16-24 in England did badly in this test but the results were accompanied with a warning to use with care**. This warning, and tests*** which show England in a more favourable light, have been ignored. He can no longer say England is plummeting down league tables – that’s been discredited too. But it’s important for Gove's political ambitions to show that education in England is failing in the “global race”.

But while Gove’s campaign against functional illiteracy and innumeracy is a pseudo war, the truth is that education in England risks failing. But not in the way Gove thinks. It will fail because it’s reducing education to a series of hurdles; it’s too fixated on exam results; it doesn’t recognise that each child is unique with different abilities, attributes and ambitions; it assumes children’s progression is always upwards when in reality it goes up, down and stands still. In short, it puts more emphasis on numbers on spreadsheets, percentages in league tables and pseudo-improvement than a broad, balanced education for every child. Gove says he’s in favour of the latter but his actions and policies work against it.

ADDENDUM Gove's Policy Exchange speech was probably intended to deflect attention from his high-profile spat with the Home Secretary, Teresa May. He's had to apologise for briefing against May to the Times. This raises questions about a too close relationship between the Murdoch-run Times and Michael Gove. I've suggested before that Gove is moonlighting as a Times leader writer. It brings the Times into disrepute if Gove is using it to attack a potential rival for the Tory leadership (which Gove has denied he's interest in, of course). And Gove has form - he briefed Murdoch against another potential rival, Boris Johnson.

*Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2011 Skills for Life Survey

**Most countries, including England, did not reach the sample size expected. This can lead to non-response bias. The OECD warned users to exercise caution when quoting the results.

***PIRLS and TIMSS (see faqs above for more information about how well English pupils did in reading, maths and science).
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 08/06/2014 - 10:47

Janet - You and Tristram Hunt are probably both right that this is just an attempted distraction from Gove's 'Trojan Horse' debacle.

Tristram has had plenty of deserved stick on this site, but I think he doing rathe well at the moment.

Jenny Collins's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 10:55

Janet, as I read the article in the Times I could see the impartial and fact-laden, properly journalistic article that would be your response forming in front of my eyes and now I can read it online!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 11:57

Jenny - it must have been telepathy!

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