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.




Plan and prepare to write

Business writing, like any activity, needs a strategic approach and a time for planning and preparation. Here are 10 tips to get you started in writing your best business English.

1. Focus on your objective for writing, your target audience - who's going to read it?

2. Define precisely what you want to achieve. This will help you think and write more clearly.

3. Create a plan of the points you wish to make.

4. Sometimes you will find it easier to start in the middle and create the beginning and the end later.

5. Prepare yourself by getting in the write mental condition and physical position, with a clear mind and good sitting position.

6. Make yourself comfortable, using a chair which supports your back properly (invest in a comfortable chair or a special back chair).

7. Set up the laptop, computer or tablet so that the screen is not too high or too low, with good lighting.

8. Write at a time of day when you will not be disturbed, and turn your mobile off.

9. Imagine who your target audience are and where they might be reading what you have written - in an email, on a laptop, on a tablet, on a smart phone, in a letter,

10. Use the right style and tone of language to match your target audience.

Now you can begin.

Welcome to my world

That old Jim Reeves' song is ringing in my ears. So, as Big Jim sang, "Why don't you come on in…?"

At the same time, my heart is filled with love for the English language. But, now that I have become a teacher of English, I have truly learnt just how complicated, contradictory and counter-intuitive the language is.

From a traditional background, studying at Oxford University and working at The Times (London), I set out on a working life in the media and in marketing. Now I am ready, willing and able  to teach English to Students of Other Languages – TESOL or TEFL as it is often known.

My aim is to combine my established skills in speaking and writing English with a new skill as a qualified teacher with a certificate from Trinity College, London.

My ambition is to celebrate simplicity in speaking and writing the English language,

My strong conviction is simply that English needs to be simple. This is because it has become the international language of business, and we owe it to people learning and speaking our language to make it easier to speak and understand.

It is also because we native English speakers tend to create misunderstandings with each other by obfuscations (using long words which are harder to understand) and jargon.

Having always loved the English language, I have read and written it from a young age. I developed a florid writing style first at school and then at Oxford University, where I read modern history. Then I "put away childish things".

I have deconstructed my English in order to make it easier to understand. After university, I trained as a journalist, where the rule was to make copy understandable to people aged 12. Then I worked at The Times for 10 years, where the target readership was only older by a year or two.

At The Times we looked enviously at the sharp headlines and smart copy from The Sun, our sister paper in the Murdoch empire.

This  belief in simplicity has been confirmed by my subsequent career:

publishing books under contract to publishers;
producing B2B magazines for companies to give to their customers or their staff;
publishing community magazines;
producing copy and content for clients of a marketing agency where I was a director.

All this has provided me with a treasure chest of materials to share with English speakers all around the world. And that is why English is such a great language – because it is flexible and adaptable and takes inspiration from many other languages and native English speakers.

So, a big welcome to my world of English.