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'Functionally illiterate and innumerate'

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 7 May, 2010 | By: William Stewart

Government-funded research claims 20% of 16- to 19-year-olds lack basic skills

Around a fifth of pupils leave school functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate, despite average achievement in the three Rs improving over the past decade, a new Government-funded study has found.

Sheffield University researchers synthesised more than 60 years of evidence on numeracy and literacy and concluded that standards have generally risen in England, with the highest skills among the best in the world.

But they also found a significant proportion of young people still lacked the basic skills needed to function in society.

Teaching union the NUT said the study, funded by the Government’s Skills for Life strategy unit, confirmed the “long tail of underachievement” already highlighted by the Pisa international comparative study.

The Sheffield report - The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948-2009 - says the latest evidence shows that 22 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds are functionally innumerate. Professor Greg Brooks, one of the study’s authors, said this had remained at around the same level for at least 20 years.

His report says this means people have “very basic competence in maths, mainly limited to arithmetical computations and some ability to comprehend and use other forms of mathematical information”.

“While this is valuable, it is clearly not enough to deal confidently with many of the mathematical challenges of contemporary life,” the report adds.

Levels of functional innumeracy are higher still among older age groups and even the 22 per cent is “higher than in many other industrialised countries”.

The latest evidence on reading shows 17 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds are functionally illiterate and Professor Brooks said this had also been the case for at least two decades.

“People at this level can handle only simple tests and straightforward questions on them where no distracting information is adjacent or nearby,” his report says.

“Making inferences and understanding forms of indirect meaning, eg allusion and irony, are likely to be difficult or impossible. This is less than the functional literacy needed to partake fully in employment, family life and citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake.”

The Sheffield study found that average reading scores for 13- to 19-year- olds had improved between 1948 and 1960 and remained “remarkably constant” from 1960 to 1988. Data showed a “gentle rise” between 1997 and 2004, followed by a further plateau.

The researchers found no evidence on achievement in writing before 1979 and no significant change between 1979 and 1988. Examination scripts suggested this static picture continued until 2004.

But key stage 3 national tests showed a “substantial” rise in writing attainment between 1995 and 2007, while GCSE results suggested a plateau throughout the 1990s, with a gentle rise from 1998 to 2005 and a steeper increase to 2009.

There was “very little evidence” on numeracy before 1978, with a small improvement for 15- to 16-year-olds between 1978 and 1982, no significant change between 1982 and 1987 and a “substantial increase” in the maths GCSE pass rate between 1989 and 2005.

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said: “There are no magic solutions, but one-to-one tuition, support for parents, family learning and a quality professional development strategy for teachers all help.

“The message to Government is that they deconstruct what is already there at their peril.”

Original paper headline: 20% leave school ‘functionally illiterate and innumerate’

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Comment (3)

  • I tried to post the following comment a little while ago, but am not sure I succeeded. (AOL playing up.)

    There is a simple but constantly ignored solution to functional illiteracy which would help to improve maths skills too: improving English spelling to make learning to read and write English easier.

    The root cause of both poor maths and poor literacy standards in England, along with all other English-speaking countries, is the inconsistency of English spelling which makes literacy acquisition exceptionally difficult. Too many words contain letters with variable pronunciation (on, only, once; and, any, apron) and too many sounds have a vast array of unpredictable spellings 'see, me, sea, key, ski, quay, seize, siege, cereal, police’.

    Literacy problems don’t just impede progress in English, but all subjects, including maths. For maths, unfathomable spelling irregularities are especially unhelpful, because they keep necessitating the suspension of logical thinking which is crucial for maths. Learning to spell words like ‘leave, sleeve, even’ and ‘believe’ requires no reasoning - just brute rote-learning.

    Having to keep switching between logic and senseless memorisation may well impede the development of logical thinking. Back in the 1960’s, a headteacher in Liverpool gave two classes an identical pattern-matching test at the beginning and the end of their first school year. One class learned to read and write with normal English spelling, the another with the more logical i.t.a. system. Both classes performed similarly in the first test. By the end of the year, the children on i.t.a. did very much better, while those using normal spelling had regressed.

    The many schools which used i.t.a. in the 1960’s and 70’s did so for just one year. They were persuaded that giving children a firm grasp of the alphabetic principle with more regular English spellings, before exposing them to the confusing irregularities of the traditional orthography, would aid their literacy progress and general learning thereafter.

    The i.t.a. groups performed better in all areas while using it, but regressed on switching to normal spelling. If we improved English spelling itself, we would shorten ‘the long tail of educational underachievement’ on a permanent basis. We would no longer have a third of UK primary schools failing to meet the standards of the World Class Primary Programme.

    Masha Bell
    Ex English teacher, now independent literacy researcher
    Author of ‘Understanding English Spelling’,
    ‘Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling’,
    and Youtube video ‘Why improve English spelling?’

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    8 May, 2010


  • Masha is logical and forceful as ever, but there remains the big difficulty about whose preferred spelling choices to adopt.

    Pronunciation of English varies widely among the UK's indigenous and non-indigenous populations (think Liverpool, Gateshead, Brixton, Peterborough, Penzance, Taunton), and even more widely in the rest of the English-speaking world. In parts of Northern Ireland, I scarcely recognize the pronunciation of basic words like 'now' (something like 'nigh'), and some members of the British Royal Family have always pronounced 'house' as 'hice'. Would 'Glasgow' become 'Glesga' in deference to local vernacular? Would 'Yorkshire' become 'Yarksha' and 'Norfolk' become 'Norfuk'?

    Someone like Philip Howard of The Times would have to be appointed at great expense to adjudicate (a 20-year job?), and then a consensus would have to be built among authors, publishers, newspapers and the rest of us. All previously published documents would suddenly be out of step with NuSpeling. And don't imagine that would be the end of it. Pressure to change spelling would continue because NuSpeling would itself get out of date. Updates would have to be published, to which we'd all have to conform. This happens, I believe, in at least one Scandinavian country.

    There's also the drawback that a wide range of comedy would disappear as most puns would make no sense. This may make many people quite Magdalen and they might be so confused they'd lose their Caius.

    NuSpeling would also break the connection between the spelling of many words and their historical, etymological roots and meanings. While the root doesn't always betray the meaning, it's sometimes a good guide. NuSpeling might make the British even more useless at foreign languages, particularly the European ones that have strong connections to our own. Incidentally, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal don't seem keen on the NuSpeling route. They are not especially phonetic languages: 'Fermez la bouche', would have to change, and why would 'Paris' keep its final s?

    While we're about it, shouldn't we get rid of all verb irregularities? As a child, my Sunday evenings were ruined by having to learn irregular French verbs by heart as homework, ready for a spelling test and possible detention next day. I believe this now constitutes child abuse aggravated by the threat of cruel and unusual punishment.

    Children can learn to spell if spelling is taught properly. Masha's own piece is immaculately spelt in the traditional way. Why do State secondary schools not teach spelling, whereas primary schools do? Why do State secondary schools seem to have so little interest in helping children develop a wide vocab? Why does the history teacher not correct a child who writes that 'Anne Berlin' was wife to Henry VIII? (His answer: because it's the job of the English department. My answer: because you're gormless and bone idle.) Should etymology be taught? Why was Latin deemed too upmarket and difficult for the proles? Like some other foreign languages, it can help with English spelling if it's well taught and if the connections are explained.

    Masha: I'd like to know more about what you and the other simplified spellers are really proposing. Iz it tinkaring or radikul riform? And wot myt bee the drorbax?

    Martin Cutts
    Research director, Plain Language Commission,

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    1 June, 2010


  • John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said: “There are no magic solutions, but one-to-one tuition."
    He is quite wrong. I am currently conducting a yearl-ong research research project called 'Every Child a Level 5 at Key Stage 2 in 2011.' A number of schools have signed up to this project which is already underway. Participating schools have provided their predicted outcomes which are broadly in line with national expectations that about 20% of children will achieve Level 3 or lower ie transfer to secondary school, functionally illiterate. I have provided the resources, instructions and my personal asurance that EVERY particpating child will achieve Level 5 in English, exceeding the standards obtained in every other European country as well as every English speaking country in the world. This guarantee applies equally to those for whom a Level 2 or Level 3 is predicted,

    I hope when when next June comes around, Mr Bang will take the honourable course and resign from his important post and apologise for his destructive and dangerous remarks which unnecessarily consign hundreds of thousands of children to illiteracy. The project is outlined at

    Eddie Carron
    Former headteacher, turned author, publisher and researcher.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    25 September, 2010


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