• Peter Hogan

Facing up to the decline in UK performance

We need to ask why, not deny it is happening


Back in 2009 half a million 15-year-olds were tested in 65 countries – the UK was ranked 26th in maths and 23rd in reading and 20th in Science. The government then pumped a small fortune into resources and by 2012 we were in exactly the same place. More steps were taken and the decline increased.


Seven years later the OECD study of basic skills ranked England the lowest in the developed world for literacy and second lowest for numeracy. To put this is into context an estimated 9 million adults of working age in England have basic skills so low that according to the report they will “struggle to estimate how much petrol is left in the petrol tank from a sight of the gauge, or not be able to fully understand instructions on a bottle of aspirin”.


In twenty first century England about one of five of the UK working age population cannot understand a label or read a simple gauge.

The problems are worst in the young; those leaving the workforce (aged 55-65) compare favourably internationally so this means this means that as more retire the basic skills of the English labour will lag further behind.


15 per cent of adults in England are described as functionally illiterate with levels of reading and writing below those expected of an 11-year-old. For this group, their entire secondary education has added nothing whatsoever to their ability to read and write.

We can look shocked and imagine that these people are somehow different, somehow separate, rare, sadly disadvantaged and of low income. We can comfort ourselves by thinking that no matter how some struggle at least the cozy middle classes are immune from such problems. The British professional classes with clever parents are still way ahead, right? No, not any more. For almost a decade British pupils from wealthy backgrounds are performing at lower levels than the poorest students in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.


The 15-year-old children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of China are more than a year ahead of the children of British doctors and lawyers and UK middle class kids are only just ahead of the relatively poor families in Japan, Vietnam, Liechtenstein and Taiwan. This conclusion is based on globally established exam attainment and achievement levels in assessments.

We should be asking why this is the direction of travel in UK education. Instead we tend to go for the easy targets, the state vs private debate, funding, the quality of teachers, the frequent policy changes and the blame game. Although, I do wonder if these things are all related? What can we do to make the data show a change in direction? That seems like a better question to ask.


Peter Hogan