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Leavers lack basic skills

Study backs West Lothian firms' claims that numeracy and literacy levels are falling in young recruits.

THE FIRST hard evidence about substantial problems with basic arithmetic among young recruits to West Lothian employers is to trigger a council review of Standard grade to drive up standards.

An independent study for the council's Numbers Up school-leavers' initiative found a quarter of all employers experienced problems due to low levels of numeracy and literacy. A third had difficulties because of a lack of vocational skills and poor attitudes to work.

Over 70 per cent of larger West Lothian firms, many in the thriving electronics industry, use American-devised aptitude tests. On average, 36 per cent of applicants fail tests of skills and attributes, 29 per cent fail on numeracy and 22 per cent on literacy. Overall, 40 per cent of large firms report problems with basic skills in their workforce.

The findings confirm the HM Inspectorate's view in a report 18 months ago on sluggish mathematics performance in primary and early secondary. The Assessment of Achievement Programme has also reported a progressive decline during the 1990s in basic number work in P4 to S2.

There has long been anecdotal evidence from employers about falling basic standards but the West Lothian study is the first to measure the concerns. Young people who fail the numeracy recruitment tests often slip up on percentages, multiplication, basic arithmetic and use of fractions. The final report, which will focus on General and Foundation level pupils, is likely to highlight the controversial use of calculators.

Alan Waite, education officer, said some aspects such as multiplying fractions was usually primary work, as was long division without a calculator.

Maths teachers who met with Mr Waite this week recognise there are problems with mental arithmetic, long division and fractions. "Part of it is to do with retention of information from the 5-14 curriculum and sitting aptitude tests without a calculator," said Mr Waite.

Teachers were positive about the findings and saw it as an opportunity to addresss specific problems, he said.The study, however, had identified a problem which would be addressed in school and at work. West Lothian is injecting pound;18,000 to back initiatives, including a Numeracy Week next September to raise the profile of numbers and their importance at work.

LEEL, the local enterprise company, is supporting the initiative which could lead to business leaders talking to schools about their needs. A steering group is expected to investigate Standard grade courses at levels between 3 and 6, along with teaching effectiveness.

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