Saturday, August 26, 2006

British government stumped by illiteracy and innumeracy

Labour's record on improving standards of literacy and numeracy came under attack last night after the publication of results for GCSE examinations and primary school tests. Pass rates at GCSE rose for the eighteenth successive year but achievement in English and mathematics at primary school level has stalled well below the Government's targets. Almost half of 16-year-olds failed to achieve at least a C grade in GCSE maths and four out of ten were below this standard in English. Employers said that the education system was "failing to deliver".

The proportion of GCSEs awarded grades A* to C rose by 1.2 percentage points to 62.4 per cent this year. But English increased by only 0.7 points to 61.6 per cent and maths by 0.9 to 54.3 per cent. At age 11, the proportion reaching level 4 in the national curriculum English test was unchanged at 79 per cent. It rose one percentage point in maths and science to 76 per cent and 87 per cent respectively.

The results left primary schools far off the Government's target of 85 per cent for both English and maths by this year and still trailing its 2002 target of 80 per cent in English. The proportions achieving the expected standard at age 7 in reading, writing and maths also fell across the board this year. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, defended the Government's record. "The attainment of young people at the end of their primary years has vastly improved on what it was in 1997 and is higher than ever before for those reaching the end of compulsory education," he said.

But David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that the primary school results showed that the Government's strategy had "run out of steam". He added: "If you go back to 1997 and what Tony Blair said about the importance of education, it is clear that missing the targets on literacy and numeracy is a big thing. "Forty per cent of pupils are still leaving primary school without having mastered the basic skills in the three Rs. This is letting down the nation's children, who then spend their lives playing catch-up."

Richard Lambert, the CBI's Director-General, said: "We must not lose sight of the severe problems which exist. Ministers must step up their efforts - they have made the right noises, but will be judged on delivery."

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that the pass rate in maths was lower than for all other major subjects. He said that standards in many schools would be exposed by changes to performance tables this year, which will rank them for the first time by the percentage of pupils passing five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Professor David Jesson, of York University, said that the primary school results showed that "the concept of continually improving performance for ever has to be questioned". Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' Shadow Education Secretary, said: "There are holes appearing all over the Government's strategy for secondary education, illustrated by the drop in teens studying languages and the shocking number quitting school altogether after GCSEs. "Too many young pupils are leaving primary school without the basic skills they need to successfully tackle the secondary curriculum."


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