As numeracy improves, literacy skills are slipping

1st April 2016 at 00:00
More than 7,000 students left school last year without basic literacy, but the problem lies beyond secondaries

more than one in 10 students left school last year without the basic qualifications to secure a job, new figures have revealed.

Statistics published by the Scottish government last week show that 14 per cent of pupils who left school in the last academic year – more than 7,000 teenagers – failed to achieve an N4 in literacy. The previous year only 8 per cent of pupils left school without at least a N4.

The slide will come as a blow to the SNP given that one of the core aims of the new curriculum is to improve English and maths skills – although the results for numeracy were more heartening, with an 11 per cent improvement (see box, below).

Gaps in learning support

Scotland needed to do better, said literacy expert Sue Ellis. Professor Ellis, who is based at the University of Strathclyde, called for learning support teachers to be consistently trained to teach early literacy skills.

Children were entering learning support in primary and often staying there for their entire school career, said Professor Ellis.

But the right reading programme – such as UCL Institute of Education’s Reading Recovery programme – could get many of these children back into mainstream classes full time, sometimes in as little as 16 weeks.

Professor Ellis said: “We need to work out what sort of learning support in literacy is producing the goods and focus on that.

“There are a lot of primaries and secondaries in Scotland where learning support teachers work with children just once a week. But if you want to develop a skill, you need to practise more often than that. It’s far better to have a short block of frequent lessons than long, thin courses.”

Professor Ellis concluded: “If [school leavers] are unable to get a National 4 in literacy, they are likely to find it hard to get a job. Scotland should be trying to do better.”

Marc Lambert, chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust, agreed that school leavers with less than a N4 in literacy would struggle to find work.

He said: “National 4 is the foundation level qualification. If pupils are failing that there are several consequences, the most obvious is they won’t be particularly employable.

“Generally, employers look for a National 5 in maths and a National 5 in English as a guarantee of functional standards in both.”

However, improving performance was not just about schools and teachers, added Mr Lambert. Poor literacy skills were often born out of poverty, which was a societal problem, not just a schools problem, he said. He called on businesses to “play more of a social role, as opposed to simply existing as financial machines”.

Mr Lambert continued: “I attended the Scottish Business in the Community Awards last year. They had helped 1,000 pupils through a variety of schemes. That’s just not good enough; that’s a tiny number. There is a lot more that should and needs to be done.”

Meeting the right criteria

When the school leaver statistics were released last week, education secretary Angela Constance said: “This government has taken a range of steps to improve educational standards and to ensure every child has the ability to achieve their full potential, and I am delighted to see that at a national level, the data shows an upward trend of young people going on to positive destinations.”

To gain N4 in literacy, learners must be able to read and write “straightforward texts” such as letters, CVs or magazine articles. They need to be able to understand “straightforward spoken communication” such as telephone conversations, webcasts and verbal instructions. They must also be able to communicate appropriately, for instance, by contributing to a discussion or a presentation.

A plus for numeracy

Despite the fall in those gaining N4 literacy the proportion gaining the same in numeracy rose by 11 per cent, from 83 per cent in 2013-14 to 94 per cent in 2014-15.

This is welcome news as pupils’ performance in maths in Scotland had been declining for years.

The problem was deemed so serious that the Scottish government created a special taskforce last year to help raise maths attainment and to encourage greater enthusiasm for the subject among pupils and the public.

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