The war on illiteracy and innumeracy has begun but what's the proper target?

1 February 2015

As the government launches its 'war on illiteracy and innumeracy' today, its own reading skills need some scrutiny.

Last month Sir Andrew Dilnot, who runs the UK Statistics Authority, rebuked the Education Secretary for claiming in Parliament that: "… under the previous Labour government one in three of our young people were leaving primary school unable to read and write."

On Friday the UK Statistics Authority published the Minister's reply:

"I disagree with your assessment that achievement below level 4 represents pupils being able to read, write and add up properly."

Sir Andrew never made any such assessment and never used the word "properly." Nor did the Minister when she repeated the one in three claim weeks after the Authority had warned her it was wrong — she said it represented pupils "unable to read and write". The Minister's reply distorts the Authority's point.

What Sir Andrew said was that the one in three includes children at level 3 at Key Stage 2 who are by definition able to "read a range of texts fluently and accurately" and write in a way which is "often organised, imaginative and clear." The description "unable to read and write" used by the Minister cannot apply to them. The Minister did however acknowledge that she forgot to include adding up in the list of things the children couldn't do.

Today it's welcome that the Minister has been careful to make the argument about what counts as proper literacy and numeracy: a debate for parents, professionals, and politicians, rather than statisticians.

But misreading the words of the UK Statistics Authority was a poor start to a literacy and numeracy drive.

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