Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Novice caterers may not need to know the value of pi, but business leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that growing numbers of raw recruits are incapable of dividing a real pie into eight equal slices. Caterers who cannot work out portion sizes are just one side of a growing problem for the economy. Foremen who cannot calculate the right amount of building materials for a task and supervisors who have to get their spouses to write their reports provide other dire examples of the shortage of basic literacy and numeracy skills among many school and university leavers.

A report from the Confederation of British Industry says the problem is so bad that one in three employers is having to send staff for remedial training to learn the English and maths they did not learn at school. As pupils prepare to receive their GCSE results this week, Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, said that too many are let down by an education system that is failing to teach essential life skills. "We must raise our game on basic skills. Britain simply can't match the low labour costs of China and India. We have to compete on quality, and that means improving our skills base, starting with the basics. "Employers' views on numeracy and literacy are clear - people must read and write fluently and be able to carry out basic mental arithmetic," he said.

The CBI report, Working on the Three Rs, which was sponsored by the Department for Education, found that poor literacy was a problem in all sectors, while poor numeracy was of particular concern in the manufacturing and construction sector. One catering company manager complained of a "total lack of knowledge of times tables" among staff, which meant many were unable to carry out simple calculations.

A personnel manager for a construction firm said that many applicants were unable to construct a sentence and that grammar, handwriting and spelling were often "awful". A manager at a building company noted that many foremen "don't have the skills to work out the areas of squares and rectangles, let alone other shape".

One personnel development manager cited the case of an employee who became very adept at hiding his lack of literacy by getting his wife to write his reports for him. The problems are not confined to school-leavers, but extend to higher levels of the education system, the CBI said.



All schools would be allowed to offer single science subjects at GCSE under a Conservative government to halt the falling number of physical science graduates, David Willetts has told The Times. As more than 700,000 teenagers await their GCSE results this week, the Shadow Education Secretary said that a system that refused all pupils the same rights of study was indefensible.

Only pupils at independent schools may currently take a single science. At leading state schools pupils can take all three subjects separately; but most take the combined science course.

The Tories' call to put state schools on the same footing as fee-paying schools comes as the Government pledges to "toughen up" the exams in English and maths, so that all young people have mastered the three Rs by the time they leave school. Last year nearly 60 per cent of all state-educated pupils failed to earn a grade C or better in either subject at GCSE, in spite of a record improvement in exam results.

As part of a rethink of GCSEs and A levels, Mr Willetts said that the rules governing the national curriculum must now be changed. All children must be allowed to study any combination of individual science subjects. "There are very distinctive scientific disciplines here and part of the excitement of studying science at school is that you shouldn't just have a general introduction," he said. "So I feel very strongly that the three real sciences should be available to all schoolchildren. It's absolutely indefensible to have such restrictive legislation, which specifically bans state schools from offering certain courses."

Concerns have been raised since the combined science award was made compulsory at GCSE in 1988. The change was intended to improve scientific literacy among school-leavers. But since then a study by Buckingham University has found that the number of A-level entries in physics had fallen by a third - most often "in those schools that do not offer GCSE physics".

The Government has stated that from 2008 all pupils who achieve level 6 at age 14 should be entitled to study the three sciences with the co-operation of schools and colleges which would be encouraged to share resources. It will also introduce two new GCSE exams to replace existing awards, one of which will be mainly multiple choice.

But Alan Smithers, who carried out the Buckingham study, said that young people would not start taking up engineering, physics and chemistry again unless more specialist teachers were employed. "We often find that many of those with a physics background don't continue teaching because they find that they're teaching biology," he said. "So if more are allowed to specialise, we will attract more specialists in."

Mr Willetts said the Tories had no intention of abolishing the GCSE, which was still "very valuable" in establishing the level of teenagers' achievement in English, maths and science at school-leaving age.

From Thursday league tables will include a measure by which schools are judged on the number of pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. Last year all the Government's flagship academies were in the bottom 200 on this measure.

The results come as employers are again decrying the poor standards of literacy and numeracy among school-leavers. Today a report by the CBI shows that one in three employers is having to give its employees remedial education in the three Rs.

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, said that new courses to be piloted this autumn would also lead to exams changing to address the "functional" skills demanded by employers. "In the future, employers will have a guarantee of the quality of the school-leavers they are taking on," he said. [In the future?? He might more accurately have said "In the past"]

"A good pass will mean that young people are equipped with the basics. That means being able to write and speak fluently, carry out mental arithmetic, give presentations and tally up a till at the end of the day."

In February, however, London University's Institute of Education found that under the new maths GCSE course all the candidates, not just the brightest, would be likely to get higher grades. The new structure will make it possible for every student to achieve a grade C in theory, and an A without tackling the toughest questions.


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