Literacy levels – bit of a rant!

As an author and avid reader, I feel compelled to write a bit of a rant about a pet topic of mine!  With apologies to all my teacher friends, (it’s not your fault, honestly!), I’m really upset by the latest findings on poor literacy levels in our schools. Literacy, the ability to read intelligently, write coherently, spell correctly, is what allows us to formulate opinions, accumulate wisdom, develop independent thought. If we have deprived our younger citizens of this through educational failings, someone somewhere is guilty of a crime beyond belief.

But apparently it is true. We are falling behind European and worldwide standards in the education of our children.  England is being overtaken by other leading nations because progress on literacy has stalled, according to chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.  Reading standards have not improved since 2005, he said, and one in five 11-year-olds does not make the grade.  In a recent speech, he called for primary school targets to be raised, saying: “Our standards should be higher”. And if we need further proof of this ongoing catastrophe, according to the recruitment experiences of major UK employers, huge numbers of school leavers in the UK can’t read, write or spell well enough to obtain or hold down jobs. Even graduates are failing to make the grade.  According to an article published on, entitled ‘Illiterate UK youth can’t count on jobs’:

 “Fifty-eight per cent of London business leaders felt that too often graduates in London lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills,” reveals Scott Payton, Editor-at-large at “We are talking about people who have spent three or four years in higher education. It is a really damning indictment of the education system at large, and it leaves one wondering what those who haven’t been to university are like.”

Meanwhile the number of unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds keeps on rising.  The latest figures show that around 800,000 are now out of work.  Recent reports in the media suggest that the violent riots in the UK last summer were the result of unemployable, illiterate young people with ‘no stake in society’.  But if businesses cannot rely on UK school leavers to be able to add up or read instructions, they are unlikely to want to risk hiring them.  Lots of big national employers say they find themselves forced to employ candidates from other countries, including Eastern Europe, who are much better educated and also have a ‘work ethic’ lacking in our own school leavers.  So not only are a high percentage of our own UK school leavers challenged in the literacy department, they are easily eclipsed by an immigrant work force who are not using their native language?

How can this have happened?  How can we have failed a couple of generations in such an essential life-skill? The UK once led the world in education standards.  Now all the evidence tells us we’ve blown it. Reading is the key to knowledge. Reading is empowering. So, what about maths and science, you say?  A good grasp of science and maths is pretty important to leading a successful life, but calculators help if you struggle with figures.  Reading is the one core skill that cannot be replicated by electronic aids.

When my eldest daughter started school, at four, in the early 1980’s, she went to a small village school in Warwickshire.  The pupil mix was wide. The village included small cottages, manor houses, farms, police housing, a brand new housing estate of four-bedroom detached homes, and a council estate. The school covered ages four to eight, but had only two classrooms, with two years in each class.  The head teacher took the top class, and the other teacher taught the younger group.  By the time the children left the first class and went into the top class, every single child at the age of around six, could read, write, spell the words they knew and recite at least half of their times-tables.

By the time my younger daughter went to the same school, (i.e. nearly three years later), a new head teacher and reception teacher had taken over.  They were delightful people, but presumably had been brainwashed by the latest Education Department guidelines, as they set about completely destroying what was then considered the normal standard of achievement.  Tests for spelling and tables were abandoned.  Regular reading practice was set aside. Story writing was haphazard.  All the structure and discipline had gone, replaced by ‘free choice’ sessions.  Try asking four to eight year olds if they’d rather sit at their desks, study their reading books, learn lists of words to spell or memorise their times-tables, or if they’d rather play dressing-up, get out the paints, run around the classroom shouting (sorry, expressing themselves)…?  The memory of arriving at school, as a regular parent volunteer, to hear my usual group of children read, and stepping into chaos as the head teacher struggled to find them, stays with me to this day.

I believe that was the beginning of the steady decline in educational standards.  The evidence is in the mess we find ourselves in today – for example, how is it possible (according to Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, last week), for pupils to gain top grade passes in GCSE English and still present problems with reading and writing when they start work? Employers have no vested interest in shoring up a failing education system, they just judge, objectively, the school leaver attempting to work for them.

I imagine a government meeting to discuss education, back in whatever decade the rot began to set in:

Chairperson / Minister for Education: (checking watch and coughing):  “So, Primary Education, er… where are we at right now?

Expert from The Department of Education (wearily shaking head): “All pupils leave primary school able to read, write, spell, and recite their tables.”

Chairperson (rolling eyes): “Fine. Right. Whatever. So how can we improve this situation?”

Rest of Quango: (nervous looks round meeting table) “We need to improve it…?”

Chairperson: “Progress! We cannot stand still, we must move forward, change with the times! What is the current teaching method in use?”

Expert from The Department of Education: “Archaic, Chairperson!  Pupils learn by rote. They learn tables and spelling via tests, and they learn to read phonetically, using books like the Ladybird ‘Janet and John’ or ‘Peter and Jane’ readers.”

Chairperson (yawning behind hand): “Whatever.  We need some Blue Sky Thinking.  We need to Think Outside the Box!”

Education Expert (visibly excited): “Right. Well, may I recommend we try the latest cutting-edge approach, ‘Learning Through Play’?”

Chairperson: “Got it!  We’ll abolish all that old-fashioned learning by rote and phonetics stuff.  Free the poor little children from this oppression! We’ll just let them PLAY and see what happens? Great idea!  OK, what’s next on the agenda?”

How about, “Where are our future readers going to come from?”

When dictatorship-style regimes take power, history tells how they confiscate and burn books, and imprison or terminate those who they perceive to be the intellectual elite.   Governments who desire complete control of the populace fear the educated and the well-read. I have to ask, I really, really want to know, who has been responsible for the decisions in the UK over the last twenty or so years that have deprived our children of the life-enhancing tool of reading? I want NAMES!

OK, rant over.  Phew.  Need a large glass of Pinot Grigio.




About Rosalie Ash

Rosalie Ash is a member of the Society of Authors and the Romantic Novelists Association. Between 1989 and 1999 she wrote 21 successful contemporary romance novels, published by Harlequin Mills & Boon. She then decided to drag herself out of her romantic bubble into the world of work. Now, over a decade on, she has started writing romantic fiction again, as well her latest passion, children's picture books for age 3-5, and she is now a member of SCBWI-UK (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, UK).
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3 Responses to Literacy levels – bit of a rant!

  1. Jill says:

    I can’t give you names but it is a succession of governments to blame for appointing “blue sky thinkers” who knew far less about education and the teaching of literacy than those of us who trained at specialist colleges for a minimum of 3 years. There are some good things about the National Curriculum, but I think its introduction in the late 80s/ early 90s heralded the start of the start

    • Jill says:

      Sorry, above comment published itself before I’d finished!
      …..start of the decline. Highly trained and experienced teachers were undermined by being told to teach differently and the rigid prescriptiveness, including ridiculous time allocations for each subject and each segment of each lesson meant teachers could not teach the children they knew well, in the way that would work best. You would not believe it unless you were there! Local Authority Advisors or Ofsted Inspectors would eat you alive if you did not toe the party line

  2. Rosalie Ash says:

    Hi Jill, thanks for the well-informed comment. You are absolutely right, of course. It must have been completely soul destroying for the teachers at the time. One of the worst things was, as a parent, if you dared to protest you were made to feel like an old-fashioned simpleton who couldn’t be expected to understand the exciting modern teaching methods. I still recall a very acrimonious Parent Teacher meeting at the school, (it was a C of E Primary school) when the newly appointed Vicar swore at us for daring to question the newly appointed Head Teacher’s methods.

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