Who’s to blame for literacy levels in England and Northern Ireland

Although each new generation always seems to be worse than the previous one from time immemorial, those criticizing the young kids of today finally have some evidence to support their claims. The newest OECD Survey of Adult Skills shows disappointing results for levels of literacy and numeracy in England and N. Ireland. Out of 24 countries where the survey was conducted, England and N. Ireland came in 15th on literacy (and young Americans were the lowest ranking among their peers!). An even more striking fact is that the literacy levels of young people are no better than of those who are leaving for retirement. The question that many seem to be asking is ‘Are schools going backwards?’.

The variables which were found to positively correlate with low literacy levels were: lower levels of education, ethnicity (Black), not having ‘very good’ general health, lower parental level of education, no computer experience in everyday life, occupation (services and shop and market sales), and job industry (human health and social work). For details see the report here.

The results have been widely discussed in the British media during the past weeks. Poverty and inequality are mentioned as possible reasons for the low performance on the survey of the British 16-24 year olds (more in the Guardian). Professor Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, and Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-general, sent similar messages concerning the results which should hopefully be addressed: “People are being left behind”. An obvious discrepancy exists between young people’s potentials and skills acquired through the education system. Although the British system seems to work just fine for the high flyers, the question is what happens with all groups of children.

But yes, a number of commentators blame sloppy shop signs, misspelt movie names, youth slang, and the ‘dumbing down’ effect of social media that require us to express our thoughts in 140 characters or fewer. A Telegraph reporter also seems to blame neologisms with the strong statement: ‘every time a selfie derivative arrives in the dictionary, another sonnet dies’. I am afraid that the grammar police will continue barking up the wrong tree of youth slang and computer mediated communication for some time. It is actually those who do not use computers on a daily basis that tend to score lower on literacy tests.


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