Scale of the challenge;Raising standards for all

26th June 1998 at 01:00
The business agenda for action in partnership with government and the qualifications and curriculum support.

This nation's position on education international league tables is comparatively low. We score high on the quality of our universities which provide a world class education, but for only 34 per cent of our people compared with proportions exceeding 40 per cent for leading industrialised nations.

Our weakness lies in our performance in basic and intermediate skills. In primary schools nearly one-quarter of young pupils fail to reach expected levels in literary and numeracy at 11 years. This initial failure undermines future learning and often leads to long-term low skill and unemployability. At 16 years, almost one-third of our secondary school students fail to achieve expected foundation qualifications. Seven million adults have no formal qualifications and one in five are functionally illiterate in terms of communication and numeracy skills. This vast tail of underachievement is the reason we score low against our competitors. It can be traced back to the early years of education right through to low access to lifelong learning opportunities for adults without skills. It has been said of this nation's education system "if at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed." This position must be changed fast.

The challenge is to tackle underachievement in primary school basic skills, support those at-risk of failure, focus on needy communities with residual low skills and improve the performance of teachers and schools and colleges. We also need to change attitudes to learning with adults, especially the low skilled, and widen access to learning to all- for the first time in our history. Learning is the key to individual advancement, economic prosperity and social cohesion. In this new age of the knowledge worker capable of upskilling and adapting to fast changing technologies and ever increasing global competition we need to develop a revolution in learning for a more skilled and more cohesive Britain.

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