Teacher leaders have criticised a Conservative minister for claiming the UK has some of the most "illiterate and innumerate" young people in the developed world.
Sam Gyimah (pictured), minister for childcare and education, told a meeting at the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham yesterday that too many young people were leaving school without the basics of education.
Mr Gyimah claimed that when the coalition government came to power in 2010 figures from the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests showed that more than a third of young people were leaving school "unable to read, write or do maths".
The statistics, he said, meant the UK had some of the most "illiterate and innumerate young people in the developed world". "It breaks my heart," the minister added.
His comments come before education secretary Nicky Morgan addresses the conference today in her first major speech since taking over from Michael Gove in July. It is understood that one of the reasons she was given the job was to smooth relations with the teaching profession.
The latest Pisa results, which were published at the end of last year, showed that the standards achieved by the UK's 15-year-olds had flatlined over the previous three years. Their performance remained average for industrialised countries in reading and maths and stayed above average at science.
Mr Gyimah's comments have been rounded on by Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, who said it "doesn't help when politicians misuse statistics".
"It's simply not true to say they are illiterate. It means that they have not reached the required level, but that doesn't mean they can't read," she said.
Labour's shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said Mr Gyimah's were a reflection of the party's beliefs towards the profession. “It is astonishing that Tory ministers are so intent on talking down our education system, having inflicted so much damage during their four years in office," Mr Brennan said.
“But the Tories have form when it comes to talking down teachers and our education system, labelling teachers as the enemies of promise."