17% of school leavers 'functionally illiterate'

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Despite teacher and student effort over recent years, a new study from Sheffield University has found that a shocking 17% of teenagers are leaving school functionally illiterate and unable to cope with the challenges of everyday life.

Although literacy in primary schools is a key focus, the emphasis can be lost in secondary schools, according to the study, which revealed that nearly one-fifth of 16 to 19-year-olds have a reading age at or below 11. This means their maths skills are limited to little more than basic arithmetic - putting the UK at a higher rate of innumeracy than many other industrialised countries.

In addition, 17% of 16- to 19-year-olds are functionallly illiterate, meaning they cannot handle much more than straightforward questions and would not understand allusion or irony.

Greg Brookes, professor of education at Sheffield and one of the study's authors, said school-leavers in these categories lacked the skills to deal confidently with many of the mathematical challenges of contemporary life and had a lower standard of literacy than is needed to partake fully in employment, family life, citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake.

Maggie Snowling, professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of York, said: “Since the direct teaching of reading is not part of secondary education, it is all too easy to assume older students are sufficiently literate to access the curriculum.

"However, a significant proportion of students will have difficulties in subjects that draw on higher-level reading skills, including the ability to make inferences and the use of figurative language. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that GCSE success strongly correlates with reading skill in school leavers.

"When reading ability is properly assessed in secondary schools, direct intervention can be provided to raise a child’s achievement and enhance their future career prospects.”

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) said the study was proof of a "long tail in underachievement". John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, said: "There are no magic solutions, but one-to-one tuition, support for parents, family learning and a quality professional development strategy for teachers all help. The message to government is that they deconstruct what is already there at their peril."

The study found teenagers' average reading scores had risen between 1948 and 1960 and remained "remarkably constant" between 1960 and 1988. Between 1997 and 2004, scores had "gently" risen and then plateaued. But they discovered little improvement in teenagers' writing between 1979 and 2004.

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