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Tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in the UK

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Talking at the British Chambers of Commerce Conference this month, Education Secretary Michael Gove said that the UK should regard the battle against illiteracy in the UK in the same way as a developing country may treat malaria.

Mr Gove stated that “we need 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.”

This comes as findings show that more than a third of pupils in England do not achieve A*- C grades in maths and English thus leaving school “effectively unemployable.” 

In an attempt to eradicate illiteracy in the UK, Mr Gove suggested that new and rigorous testing would help ensure that at least 85% of primary school pupils were on course to get good grades in English and maths GCSEs. Teachers would be expected to assess pupils at the end of Key Stage 1 (aged 6-7) to check they are making the appropriate progress. Although it may seem extreme to compare illiteracy in Britain to the fight against illness in third world countries, it’s clear to see that urgent steps need to be taken so that more pupils can function in maths and English by the time they leave school. There’s no doubt about it, these skills are not only vital across all areas of employment but also in daily life.

However, at NCFE we believe that GCSEs aren’t the only route to achievement. It was recently set out as part of the Coalition’s ‘The Future of Apprenticeships in England‘ plan that the new ‘Gold Standard’ GCSEs in English and maths would be included within Apprenticeships. My concern here is that alternative options such as Functional Skills could become devalued.

Not all vocationally inclined learners may see the value in (and indeed, may be put off by) writing essays on iambic pentameter whilst undertaking their Apprenticeship. Functional Skills, in contrast, allow learners to develop those critical literacy and numeracy skills in an accessible and practical way.
As an example, one of NCFE’s customers, Bolton College, has recently developed ‘Maths Everywhere’, an interactive learning tool designed to help deal with the numbers and calculations learners may come across in everyday life. The app contextualises maths and shows learners how relevant it is. At NCFE, we provide over 100 bite-size qualifications in English and maths which can be tailored to meet individual needs. We recognise that that not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way. With these bite sized chunks of learning, the focus is very much on the learner and their progression. Tutors are able to choose the exam dates and give immediate feedback so that time and guidance can be given on weaker areas.

Ultimately, the importance of literacy and numeracy cannot be underestimated and I fully support Michael Gove’s vision to ensure that young people flourish in these areas. However, I also think that it’s crucial to reach out to all young people and find a way to connect with them in a real way. We need to give learners a renewed interest in these subjects, engaging them and showing them that English and maths are not just theoretical concepts but can be used to their own benefit. 

David Grailey is chief executive of NCFE, the national awarding organisation

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