The failure of Government policy on education was highlighted today in two reports. In one, literacy expert Jean Gross suggests that poor literacy is costing the State £2 billion a year in lost earnings and additional public expenditure. Meanwhile, figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that there are 1.24 million people aged between 16 and 24 who are not in work, training or education, a 15 per cent increase since Labour came to power. The figure is worse for 16 and 17 year olds, where the increase has been 27 per cent.
This comes as no surprise when one considers that the OECD estimates that around a third of school leavers in the UK are functionally illiterate, ranking below such countries as Finland, the Czech Republic and Portugal. It doesn’t need to be this way; Sweden regularly achieves a 100 per cent functional literacy rate.
It does not take a genius – or even a degree of literacy – to recognise that these two factors are linked. Most people would expect to be able to read and write before they leave primary school, yet a huge minority enter secondary school completely unable to cope with the demands. These are the children that become disaffected and give up on an education system with which they cannot cope. Two in every five school children leave without any worthwhile qualification. With little prospects of a job in an age when Britain is a developed, information-driven service economy, they drift into unemployment, and from there to drugs and crime. It is no coincidence that while one in three school leavers cannot read and write, in our prisons the statistic is seven in ten.
If after eleven years of compulsory education the State cannot impart the most basic skills necessary for 21st century life – literacy and numeracy – it is time to accept that State education is failing. While the best performers in the OECD survey were the highest spenders, overall there were no correlation between expenditure and literacy. Rather, the problem is in a system that lumps children of all abilities into one, uniform type of school, prioritises the choices of bureaucrats over those of parents, stifles innovation among teachers creates no incentive for success.
The solution is more competition, performance related pay, parental choice and autonomy for schools that wish to innovate. The State’s role is to ensure that education is available to all irrespective of wealth or background; that does not mean it needs to provide education itself. This will be best achieved by giving parents the spending power, allowing the money to follow the pupil, while schools compete on quality and on specialist provision to cater for the needs of the children they wish to serve. With power in the hands of parents and schools competing for children, the quality of service will rise. In education, that means more literacy, a stronger economy and less crime.