One in five teenagers is practically unemployable after leaving school lacking the English and maths skills needed for everyday life, research suggests.
The number of 16- to 19-year-olds rendered functionally illiterate or innumerate has failed to improve over the last two decades, the study said, despite billions spent attempting to raise standards in the three-Rs.
Teenagers’ reading ability has barely changed since 1960, it was claimed, leaving thousands of young people struggling to “partake fully in employment [and] family life”.
The conclusions – in research from Sheffield University – come amid continuing fears over levels of basic skills.
Last month, a cross-party committee of MPs said that the number of school leavers without a job or college place had failed to improve “despite one policy strategy after another”.
It will also raise doubts over Labour claims that school standards have risen dramatically in the last 13 years.
On Friday, the National Union of Teachers warned that more action was needed to tackle the “long tail of underachievement” in schools.
In the latest study, academics assessed evidence relating to levels of basics skills among young people between 1948 and 2009.
It said the latest data suggested 22 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds were now functionally innumerate, while 17 per cent were illiterate.
Prof Greg Brooks, one of the report’s authors, said it meant more than a fifth of teenagers left school with “very basic competence in maths” which was “clearly not enough to deal confidently with many of the mathematical challenges of contemporary life”.
Standards of innumeracy had remained at the same level for 20 years and was “higher than in many other industrial countries”, the report found.
Academics said that literacy skills had also failed to improve since the late 1980s.
“People at this level can handle only simple tests and straightforward questions on them where no distracting information is adjacent or nearby,” the study said.
“Making inferences and understanding forms of indirect meaning, eg. allusion and irony, are likely to be difficult or impossible.
“This is less than the functional literacy needed to partake in employment, family life and citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake.”
The study – quoted in the Times Educational Supplement – found that average reading ability improved between 1948 and 1960, but then remained “remarkably constant” until the late 1980s. Data showed a “gentle rise” in standards between 1997 and 2004, but then further plateau.
The disclosure comes amid continuing concerns over the number of 16- to 19-year-olds classed as “Neet” – not in education, employment or training.
A study last year from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that some 10.7 per cent of school leavers were Neet in 2007. This was higher that every country except Turkey, Israel, Spain and Brazil, the OECD said. The international average was 7.2 per cent.
By Graeme Paton, Education Editor
Published: 3:24PM BST 07 May 2010
Source: The Telegraph