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UK literacy ranks in bottom third

School-leavers in the UK languish in 13th place in an 18-country international league table of literacy, a report published this week says.

Thirty-five per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds in the UK score below level 3 in literacy - which is considered by international experts to be the minimum level needed to cope with modern life.

In the table, compiled from an international survey conducted between 1994 and 1998, the UK ranks below countries such as Finland, the Czech Republic and Portugal, but out-performs Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. In the latter, 60 per cent of young people completed secondary education without the necessary skills.

Education Secretary David Blunkett said the report highlighted the scale of the problems Labour faced four years ago. "When we came in we accepted that we had major problems. We had a legacy of problems which we are now putting right."

"Education Policy 2001", the latest report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, assesses the progress of member countries towards lifelong learning goals. Britain, along with the US, Switzerland and Australia, "is characterised by comparativey weak and uneven performance", the report says.

Reports this week suggested that the OECD believed that Britain's schools faced "meltdown" as a result of teacher shortages. However, David Istance, principal administrator at the OECD's centre for educational research and innovation, told The TES: "It is very unlikely that that would happen. The action being taken (to tackle shortages) represents a responsible reaction to the situation. We do not see meltdown as a probable scenario."

The UK does better on other measures. The ratio of pupils per computer in schools is fifth-best of 15 and a higher-than-average proportion of adults are engaged in formal learning. The UK also performs above the OECD average in providing early-years education and in the number of adults with higher education qualifications.

Only four countries - Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden - are identified as having strong all-round performances. They are the biggest spenders on education, the report says. "For others, there is no apparent relationship between public spending and lifelong learning," it says.

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