English students among the least skilled in the industrialised world

A recent study by the OECD showed that 16-24 year olds in England are among the least skilled in terms of literacy and numeracy in the industrialised world

Photo Credit: Jennerally

Photo Credit: Jennerally

Out of the 24 countries which saw their international literacy and numeracy test results examined, England came 21st for numeracy and 22nd for literacy. Perhaps even more shockingly, England was the only developed country surveyed where the population is becoming worse educated instead of better, with young people failing to do better in the tests than those in the 55-65 age group. According to the study, 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland have the numeracy skills of a ten year old.

Despite the failings of our school system, the UK still has some of the greatest universities in the world, and indisputably punches above its weight in the realm of higher education. But if British children continue to fall behind their peers in other developed countries, the long-term viability of our leading status in this area could be called into question. More generally, having a poorly educated population is going to have negative externalities in terms of Britain’s economic productivity, employment rates and ability to compete in the global race.

But what can be done about this problem? Surely there aren’t enough hours on the school timetable to devote to more Maths and English? Well, in British Secondary Schools a significant proportion of the curriculum is devoted to learning foreign languages. The languages taught are in the vast majority of cases, European ones, particularly French, German or Spanish, which is understandable given that most of Britain’s trade is with other EU states. However, 51% of EU citizens can speak English, and this is particularly the case amongst the better educated and younger Europeans – the very people Britons are most likely to encounter during their future careers.

Instead of spending time learning to speak languages which they are most likely never going to use, this valuable time in the curriculum could instead be used to improve not only the numerical and literacy skills of young Britons, but also their skills in the fields of science and technology. Our fluency in English, the world’s language, gives us a massive advantage, and so since it is not necessary for us to devote a large amount of school hours to learning foreign languages, we have a great opportunity to gain a similar advantage in the skills which will drive our economy forward in the 21st century. Of course the value of other languages cannot be denied but if it is at the expense of basic literary and numeracy skills surely something is wrong.

In 1997 Tony Blair promised that education would be the top priority of his Labour administration. However, the fact that 16-24 year olds, the very people who spent most of their time at school while Labour was in power, are so intellectually backward, shows that Blair’s promise was not fulfilled and that Labour’s education policies were ultimately a failure. Whatever you may think of Michael Gove’s education reforms, he should be given credit for at least attempting to fix a system which is quite clearly in desperate need of repair.


  1. …thought this mean English Lit students. That would make more sense.

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  2. meant* obviously

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  3. To argue that foreign language studies should be cut in favour of concentrated English studies is a thoroughly ignorant proposition.

    For a start, learning foreign languages develops understanding of language as a whole. Comparing English to French/German/Spanish highlights syntactical and lexical differences and similarities, meaning learning something like French with English as a first language is a rewarding and self-reflexive experience, especially considering our language has such deep French roots.

    In addition, to view English as “the world’s language” simply because it is so widely spoken is no reason at all to suggest we don’t require a strong focus on foreign language tuition. It’s that sort of pompous, xenophobic attitude which gives our country a reputation of laziness and ignorance, and it’s not welcome.

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  4. Your plan seems a little misguided. Relying on trade partners to speak English puts us at a disadvantage right from the start. We don’t get their respect, and we miss out on a wide range of opportunities. That small, independent [PRODUCT] producer in the South of [COUNTRY] produces some of the best [PRODUCT] in the world, but they don’t speak English – I guess we’re stuck with the big multinational corporation with all those “better educated and younger” employees then.

    Modern foreign languages need to be promoted in schools, not cut. They already have a tiny take-up rate at A-level (around 5% if memory serves), and really need plugging to get more students taking Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, German etc. to a high level.

    What evidence do you have that the teaching of MFLs is being allocated “a large amount of school hours” at the expense of English and maths? When I was in Key Stage 3, I did four hours of languages (French and Spanish) per week. I also did two hours of art (pointillism, how to draw eyes etc.), two hours of geography (mainly colouring), one hour of drama (“let’s pretend to be giraffes!”), one hour of music (“let’s beat the rhythm ‘scrambled eggs’ on this percussive instrument”), two hours of history (highlighting sources), two hours of food tech/textiles (fruit kebabs/collages), and one hour of “IT” (PowerPoint animations). I can think of several subjects worth cutting in favour of maths and English, and they’re not MFLs.

    My view is that English and maths already have sufficient lesson time allocated, and let’s also remember that they’re compulsory up to age 16. What’s needed is, I believe, a change in how we develop children as learners. Good pupils get good grades – concentrating in lessons (and getting enough sleep to do so), doing every piece of homework on time without exceptions, allocating sufficient time to revise before exams. I spent a lot of my free time reading novels, and I went on to do quite well at English. Teenagers need to somehow be made to understand the benefits of a good education. I’ve done some voluntary work with the age group, and it’s worrying how many of them think that they can just stick it out at school for a few more years with the minimum effort before walking into their dream job and being rich and happy for the rest of their lives etc.

    I’m not blaming this generation for its academic record, however. The last couple of decades have seen an explosion of new distracting factors that previous generations just didn’t have to deal with – the Internet, games consoles, an abundance of age-targeted TV channels.

    Finally, I doubt that Gove is going to be the saviour of the education system. What I’ve seen of his plans for the curriculum seems to just be a greater focus on every subject (as if that were possible). The teachers think he’s useless, and they’re the people dedicating their careers to improving the education system, rather than dedicating the education system to improving their careers.

    This may or may not make sense, as I can only read a few lines of what I’ve written at a time on my phone.

    I think you’re wrong to suggest that foreign languages are unimportant. I think more focus should be placed on motivating pupils to learn, rather than forcing them to sit through extra lessons. Gove is a bit silly.

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