Another depressing statistic appeared in the news this week. According to a report by the OECD, our teenagers (between 16 and 19 years old) had the worst literacy skills of the 23 developed countries they assessed. We were also second-bottom in the group in terms of numeracy skills. We have three times as many people with poor performance in these very basic skills than do the top performing countries (Finland, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands).

These changes have developed over the years and through this time we have changed education in such a way as to fool ourselves into thinking we have been improving. The great experiment to move away from “transmission teaching” and towards progressive educational ideals has seriously damaged our educational system. Unfortunately, while we have done this we have altered how we assess education and inflated the number of exam passes we now award ourselves. As the Dodo said “Everybody has won and all must have prizes“. So each year we pat ourselves on the back, proud in the ever increasing number of awards achieved by school pupils while ignoring reports from OECD and PISA, or objective measures of performance, which reveal growing functional illiteracy and innumeracy.

These changes not only hide our problems but add to them. Despite poor skills we still send greater numbers to university and award degrees. These certificates of tertiary education are becoming devalued as they increasingly unable discriminate for high levels of achievement. Indeed they can no longer even ensure adequate levels of educational attainment.

In the commercial world, it is unlikely that our future will be secured by our ability to compete with other nations in what we can dig out of the ground, grow in the ground or rear upon the ground. Our heavy industries are inefficient and not able to compete with other providers. We often see our salvation in our skills in the “knowledge economy” and our ability to market our intellectual abilities. These findings should make us fearful of our ability to successfully pursue this strategy.

We need to be clear in our vision. If we do not want to compete as a low-wage high-manpower economy, with the reduced living circumstances this would entail, then we need urgently to improve our eduction system. We need to focus on strategies shown to be effective in improving skills (such as “transmission teaching”) and scorn fads which let our children fail. If we fail, our children may end up with their degrees working minimum wage jobs in failing industries in a poor and decaying economy – the certificates and awards perhaps mainly useful as kindling.

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