English business must help students with literacy and numeracy skills

It is time for UK business to get more involved with the education process

Students with other languages often take more trouble to learn to speak and write good English than native English speakers. This has been rammed home to me by the recently published study on international literacy and numeracy by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Scorn and humiliation have been heaped on the literacy and numeracy skills of adults in England and Northern Ireland. In this study of more than 150,000 people aged 16 to 65 in 24 countries, the UK (excluding Scotland and Wales) has scored poorly – 13th in literacy and 16th for numeracy.


The OECD finds that, across all participating nations, adults with the highest levels of literacy (4 or 5) are three times as likely to enjoy high wages as those with level 1. And the study reports that countries are more successful economically where businesses are closely and proactively involved with the education process.


In the UK, business are not proactively involved with education, despite the trend for internships (often unpaid – scandalous). 


BBC business editor Robert Peston has written in his blog: “… the OECD would argue is that, where employers have more of an impact on what is taught in schools and subsequently, both skills attainment and economic performance improve. This is not about companies bossing schools around but about a social compact between the private sector and the education system, where there is a mutual acknowledgement of the imperative of preparing younger people for the better jobs of tomorrow.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24442248


Business must get involved

It is time for UK business to get more involved with education rather than just complaining when confronted with people from school and university who are ill-prepared for life and unfinished in their literacy and numeracy skills. In my old job as director of a marketing company we often employed school-age students as interns during their summer holidays, and we were impressed with their brightness, industry and productivity.


Sadly, we can’t trust the politicians to deliver. An Education Minister is in post for only 3 or 4 years, and his or her successor is bound to move the educational goalposts, even if they are from the same political party. Constant change is not a good business model and makes teaching very difficult. Let’s leave education in the hands of the teachers, supported by parents and businesses – politicians can have an overview but not control of the curriculum.


Literacy and numeracy rankings

In the OECD study Japan came out top both for literacy and numeracy, with Finland 2nd in each case. In literacy places 2 to 5 in the rankings were filled by the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden; in numeracy it was Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway.


One bright spot in the findings: the UK is rated much better in getting people to use their skills at work. Andreas Schleicher, OECD deputy director for education, comments that the UK and US is “very good at extracting the maximum out of limited skills bases”, but Japan is only “so so”. Individuals “that are highly skilled get a lot out of this, those that are poorly skilled pay a high price”, he said.


The study shows that England is the only country in the survey where results are going backwards – with the older generation better than the younger. It is worrying that England's 16 to 24-year-olds lag behind in 22nd place for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24.The study reveals that there are 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland with the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old.