Hitting targets may not strike gold

Links between literacy, numeracy and society's wealth have been challenged, reports Susan Young

Individuals, not nations, are made richer from improved educational standards according to research published today.

International comparisons show no evidence that hitting the Government's stringent education targets will improve Britain's economic performance, says Peter Robinson of the Centre for Economic Performance. Analysis of the most recent large-scale research, the Third International Maths and Science Study, showed no meaningful correlation between a country's performance in maths and the success of its economy.

"I would argue that the consensus among economists is that there is a strong relationship between qualifications and success in the labour market: that is unambiguous. The relationship between education and national economic performance is very hard to demonstrate."

He says it would, however, be worthwhile to strive to raise standards of achievement of the lowest 10 or 20 per cent of children - but the benefits would be felt by those individuals with improved job prospects rather than by society.

Controversially, Mr Robinson says the best way of doing this is not through the Government's White Paper plans for raising achievement, but through social and economic intervention aimed at the most disadvantaged people in society. "Tony Blair talks about education only having benefited the few and not the majority. I think it is the other way round: the education system at the moment does pretty well by the majority but doesn't benefit the few.

"A new Labour Government, you might think, would be concerned about the labour market prospects for that lowest 10 or 20 per cent of the population," he said.

His report, Literacy, Numeracy and Economic Performance, says: "Over the long run the most powerful 'educational' policy is arguably one which tackles child poverty, rather than any modest interventions in schooling."

Plans for education action zones targeting failing areas will simply not work, he says, pointing out that a similar scheme had been tried unsuccessfully in the 1960s.

Mr Robinson is highly critical of the policies by which the Government hopes to raise standards of achievement outlined in the summer's White Paper. "What schools can do will generally be overwhelmed by the social and economic background.

"There isn't a great deal of evidence that class size, teaching methods, homework policy, streaming or setting have any effect on literacy or numeracy. Also, very controversially, there isn't a great deal of evidence that pre-school has any impact on literacy or numeracy. But there are two school factors which are very important. The peer group is very important for primary school children (and) having parents involved seems to raise standards of literacy and numeracy."

Mr Robinson, research officer at the CEP, which is based at the London School of Economics but funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, attacks much current education policy in his report. He questions the accuracy of the national test results, arguing that there is a clear inconsistancy between their findings and that of the GCSE. He says there needs to be a "single currency" for describing levels of achievement across academic and vocational examinations and the national curriculum, and argues that the equivalencies have been badly confused.

Literacy, Numeracy and Economic Performance is available at Pounds 12 from the Centre for Economic Performance, The London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE.

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