We're failing our country with our education system

To keep up with our international competitors we need an education system which is competitive, challenging and intellectually leading. We need one, but we do not have one

Change must begin in our primary schools
Alastair Whitby
On 9 April 2012 09:32

It’s no breaking news that we are in an economic slowdown and in order for the country to emerge from the ‘dark tunnel’ we must secure long-term significant growth. Growth, like so much else, starts with education as the keystone to competition on the world stage.

Keeping up with the high end technology of Japan, the top quality manufacturing of Germany and the medical breakthroughs so often seen in the USA means we need an education system which is competitive, challenging and intellectually leading. We need one, but we do not have one.

Our system is just not comparable to these competitors; in fact there are 24 other countries whose pupils are better readers, 27 countries whose pupils are better mathematicians and 10 other countries where the pupils are better scientists. You do not have to be a rocket engineer to work out that if we want a country and an economy that can compete with the rest of the world, our future generations must be able to be able to read, write and count as well as the rest of the world. Yet we have been slipping down educational world rankings since 2006. Our situation has deteriorated to such an extent that pupils in Estonia, Poland, Netherlands and Hungry can all read better than our children.

So it is no wonder that domestic school leavers are no longer able to keep up with the rest of the world in international jobs, universities places and apprenticeships when 183,000 pupils, or 33 percent, of our future work force who enter high school are unable to meet the required standard in our ‘core subjects’ (English, Maths and Science). The picture becomes increasingly bleak as 1 in 10 boys (that is a total of 28,000 boys), when leaving high school, can read no better than a seven year old. OFSTED themselves haverecognised that literacy rates have “stalled” with other countries performing better. Surely we are failing these pupils.

How can an individual access the wider curriculum, aimed at 12-16 year olds, of physics, history and a foreign language when they have the literacy level of a seven year old?

The picture doesn’t improve when examining maths abilities. Recent research by the National Numeracy Charity found that around 50 percent of the working population have a numeracy rate similar to that of a primary school child. There are no prizes for guessing that if adults have the literacy and numeracy abilities of school children we are not going to win the competitive race for world leading, secure long-term growth. We are failing our own country.

Research by KPMG auditors suggesting annual costs to the public purse arising from failure to master basic numeracy skills amount to £2.4bn; £2.4bn removed from the economy as a result of our educational system failing to address the fact that people cannot count. It is unmistakable that we are paying for this in our science, technology and engineering industries but more worrying is the effect this has on individuals own microeconomics as people struggle to read pay slips, work out tax, or calculate change.

However, it is not possible to try and emulate and create a carbon copy of the educational system seen in other countries as there are many cultural differences which have to be taken into consideration; after all we are not China. We must be original and innovative in our approaches which will fit the cultural backdrop of the UK. This is not about changing society to fit the education system; it’s about changing the education system to make a better society.

Despite this one thing is clear: children must leave primary school with an internationally competitive ability to read, write and count. Children should not be able to leave primary school unless an acceptable level in the core subjects (English, Maths and Science) has been met.

This ensures that children will at least be able to access the curriculum at a higher level but it is not the be all and end all. Even bigger changes are needed in secondary schools. A major change desperately needed is specialised schools from an earlier age. For example the JCB academy for 14-18 year olds and the proposed 16+ free school backed by Leicester Tigers Rugby Union team.

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