At the annual conference of the British Chamber of Commerce, education secretary for England, Michael Gove, announced, in somewhat messianic terms, his latest “mission”. It is, he said, “to ensure we eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain. In the same way as developing nations know they need to secure clean drinking water and eliminate malaria if their children are to flourish. And in the same way as our forefathers more than 100 years ago knew they had to eradicate polio and TB if children were to flourish.”
Mr Gove really does seem to have lost touch with reality if he thinks that eliminating illiteracy and innumeracy is some sort of Mount Everest to climb. It is not, actually, as difficult as he makes it out to be. All that is required to achieve ‘close on’ one hundred per cent is that children are properly taught. Other countries seem to manage it quite well. The “CIA World Factbook” lists literacy rates in 267 countries around the world. A tiny number, about two per cent, but including the UK, are listed only in terms of most children having attended school. No such problems for Finland and Canada which both hit literacy rates of one hundred per cent. Most countries around the world are close to that figure. Impoverished Albania hits 96.8 per cent, some way behind Azerbaijan which scores 99.8 per cent. The Gaza Strip trails in at 96.4 per cent. Illiteracy is certainly a problem in some parts of the globe but it is concentrated in just 10 countries, mostly heavily populated, such as India, Egypt and Indonesia.
A few months ago, at the Conservative Party Conference, Mr Gove blessed his good fortune in having what he called “the best generation of teachers ever in our classrooms”. He added that, “Every day I also give thanks for the amazing work being done by the teachers”. If our teachers are so good why is it that, according to the latest SATs results, 24 per cent of 11 year-olds entered secondary schools last September unable to achieve even the abysmally low standard of literacy and numeracy (Level 4) represented by what is called the “national expectation”?
In his latest speech the education secretary admitted the undemanding nature of the tests by promising that he is planning for them to be “more rigorous”. He is right. I recall entering half a dozen private school six year-olds for the Key Stage 2 SAT papers for 11 year olds some years ago. They all passed with flying colours. The DfE would not allow us to repeat the exercise. It was, clearly, too embarrassing to have bright six-year-old infants from private schools taking and passing SATs intended for 11 year-olds.
For all the Government trumpets improvements, the majority of maintained school 11 year-olds can still not manage what should really be the “national expectation” – a Level 5.
Mr Gove is right to highlight the national deficiencies in literacy and numeracy. However, he overstates the extent to which this is a challenge. If most of the rest of the world can do it, so can we.