In a maths survey of seven countries, the Japanese got the most sums right and the British performed worst. Is it simply down to cultural difference?
For several years there has been mounting concern that many children are leaving school with a poor grasp of basic mathematical skills. Several studies of international achievement have revealed that in the United Kingdom most of the population has rather poor skills, having either left school at 16 after following an unambitious curriculum, or staying on at school or college but studying no further mathematics.
A survey of 142 secondary schools conducted last year by the Basic Skills Agency found 32 per cent of pupils arriving from primary schools were at least two years behind in reading at the age of 11. In the national key stage tests last year only 55 per cent of our 11-year-olds had reached the standard in maths expected for their age and only 57 per cent could read at the required standard. One in six of 16 to 60-year-olds in England and Wales - more than 6 million people - also have inadequate numeracy and literacy skills.
A research study of 37-year-olds last year found that 19 per cent had poor literacy skills and 23 per cent had poor numeracy skills. A Basic Skills Agency survey of adult numeracy in the UK, Japan, Australia, France, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark this year found that Britons did worst of all and the Japanese did best. More people in Japan got more answers right than any other country and more people in Britain got more answers wrong.
A skills audit conducted by the last government suggested that the UK was quite good at attaining high-level qualifications but pretty bad at attaining middle-level ones.
The studies of international mathematical achievement which found that most Britons left school with rather poor mathematical skills also found that a small elite of UK school-leavers departed with very good mathematical skills.
These are sobering statistics. But what are we doing to raise achievement levels? In 1993, the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets (NACETT) was set up to make Britain more competitive internationally by raising standards and attainment levels in education and training to world-class levels.
It set out some very challenging educational attainment targets for the year 2000. These include one that 85 per cent of 19-year-olds should achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above, an Intermediate GNVQ (a vocational A-level) or an NVQ level two. Only 69 per cent do so at present. The percentage of 21-year-olds with two GCE A-levels, an Advanced GNVQ or an NVQ level 3 should also rise from 45 per cent to 60 per cent. (See fact files on pages 12 and 13).
Last September, Gillian Shephard, the then Education Secretary, announced that schools would be required by law to set targets for improving pupil performance and that benchmarks of performance among groups of similar schools would be established.
In May, her successor, David Blunkett, set new national targets for mathematics and English. By the year 2002 he said he wanted 75 per cent of 11-year-olds to be reaching the standards expected for their age in maths and 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to be reaching the standards expected for their age in English.
He also set up a Numeracy Task Force under the leadership of Professor David Reynolds to help deliver those targets. Labour's Literacy Task Force has already made its recommendations and Professor Michael Barber now heads the Standards and Effectiveness Unit in the Department For Education and Employment which is devising strategies for raising standards.
In its forthcoming White Paper the Government has promised measures to raise standards. These include setting national standards, improving teacher training, hit squads to target failing schools, a statutory requirement for homework, home-school contracts and the requirement that children should spend one hour a day reading at school.
Educationists tend to view David Blunkett's maths and English targets as demanding but achievable. Some of the NACETT national education and training targets for the year 2000 may be hit but other targets are perceived as being far too ambitious.
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, says of the NACETT targets: "They are national wish-lists. The strategy to achieve them under the previous government was not specific or dynamic enough."
He doubts there was ever a coherent mechanism to enable the education and training system to meet those targets. "It was a strategy of exhortation and encouragement perhaps rather than of any direct action," he says. "If you are going to deliver then you have to have a strategy which says here is a target and this is how we intend to help people deliver these targets."
Mr Wells thinks the Labour government does have a strategic view of how to try to help make sure the targets are delivered.
His agency is also working hard to improve adult basic skills and to help under-achieving children in the schools and at home. There are hundreds of family literacy programmes throughout England and Wales helping adults and children to read and write.
The agency is evaluating 103 grant-aided schemes in secondary schools designed to raise literacy and to a lesser extent numeracy levels among 11-, 12- and 14-year-olds.
It is also trying to encourage employers to help employees improve their basic skills through a number of employment-related initiatives. Some large employers - Ford UK, for example - is already working to raise basic skill levels.
Business in the Community, under the chairmanship of Sir Peter Davis, the chief executive of the Prudential, is working to involve business in helping under achieving schools. (See interview on page 13).
Mr Wells believes that it is very important to ensure that children are properly educated in the schools but it is equally important not to write off those adults and young people who have already been failed by the education system. They must receive remedial help as well.