• Peter Hogan

UK results - saying things we don't want to hear

Updated: Oct 7



"An estimated 9 million adults of working age in England have basic skills so low they are not able to fully understand instructions on a bottle of aspirin."

GCSEs are getting easier, right? So maybe the adult readers can answer a few extracted exam questions, set in recent years. Try these:

1. A small aeroplane accelerates at 2 m/s2 from a velocity of 8 m/s and after a distance of 209 m it reaches its take-off velocity. Calculate its take-off velocity of the aeroplane.

2. A copper rod has a length of 7 cm and a mass of 4 ×10–4 kg. When there is a current of 1.12 A the resultant force on the copper rod is 0 N. The gravitational field strength is 9.8 N/kg; calculate the magnetic flux density.

3. During a game, players can win and lose counters. At the start of the game Rob, Tim and Zak share the counters in the ratio 5 : 6 : 7. At the end of the game Rob, Tim and Zak share the same number of counters in the ratio 7 : 9 : 8. Show that Rob ends the game with more counters than he started with.

4. Vous décrivez votre vie d’adolescent(e) pour votre blog. Décrivez : vos passe-temps prefers, vos rapports avec votre famille, une activité récente avec un(e) ami(e) et vos projets pour le week-end prochain.

In truth, it is likely that most readers will struggle with some or all of these. It is also possible that you will look at these questions and be turned off the task and reminded of past discomforts. You may get a cold chill remembering your time at school and how you disliked this sort of thing. This is normal. Very normal.


Not liking exams is perfectly fine and the UK has had a reputation for being pretty good at them despite this. Had, past tense. Things are changing and the situation is getting worse.

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.

In 2016 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. That is, their literacy levels are at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. Put another way, for this group, their entire secondary education has added nothing whatsoever to their ability to read and write.

Of course not everyone is at the bottom of the chart and the country isn’t sliding into complete ignorance. But things are certainly changing and as the UK changes in one way other countries are changing in different ways.

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. Since at least 2014 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 can't brush it aside, criticise the data or shoot the messenger. These are facts we should face.

"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."

So, have exams in the UK got easier? Does it matter? Is it really as simple as that? 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

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