Telegraph columnist wrongly claims literacy at the lowest level in UK history

3 June 2021
What was claimed

The UK has the lowest literacy rates in its history

Our verdict

False. Literacy is currently about 99%. In the past, it has been as low as about 5%. Adult and child literacy appear to have either stayed stable or improved over recent decades.

What was claimed

The UK’s child literacy and numeracy rates consistently languish either at or near the bottom of every international table.

Our verdict

Various international league tables put the UK above the OECD average for literacy and numeracy.

A column in the Daily Telegraph makes a number of eye-catching claims about the state of education in the UK, but not all of them are right. 

In the piece, journalist Celia Walden argues that schemes to help pupils catch up on their learning after the pandemic should focus on the core education of literacy and numeracy. She writes: “Do we really need reminding that […] we have the lowest literacy rates in our history.”

This isn’t true. We’ve asked the Telegraph what Ms Walden was referring to but it has not responded.

Our World in Data, a statistical publication from the University of Oxford, has collated figures going back to 1475, showing literacy in the late 15th century was around 5% - meaning only 5% of the population could read and write. 

It is currently around 99%, although a significant number have low levels of literacy.

Assuming that Ms Walden was referring to the more recent past, it also appears as if this has improved slightly over the past few decades, based on the little consistent data available. 

The average adult literacy scores improved between 1996 and 2012. And England’s score in international tests among children shows reading aptitude has remained similar or even increased since 2006. 

 The Telegraph article goes on to claim: “Our child literacy and numeracy rates consistently languish either at or near the bottom of every international table.” 

We have asked the Telegraph for the source of this claim.

It possibly refers to a 2012 analysis by the OECD which found that England had the highest proportion of teenagers aged 16-19 with low levels of literacy and numeracy among 23 countries and territories.

However, it would be wrong to say that the UK’s child literacy and numeracy rates are at or near the bottom of every international table. More recent data, albeit covering children of different ages, paints a more positive picture. 

In 2016, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) tested 10-year-olds across 50 countries and territories. Northern Ireland placed seventh and England placed joint-eighth, while Scotland and Wales did not participate.

In 2018, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested 15-year-olds across around 80 countries and territories and the UK was above average for both reading and mathematics.

And in 2019, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tested pupils in year 5 and year 9 with much the same outcome. Students from the UK (specifically England and Northern Ireland, as Scotland and Wales didn’t participate), outperformed the average.

These studies all measure, in their own ways, average aptitude in maths and reading, rather than the proportion of children who meet a definition of “illiterate” or “innumerate”.  

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