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.