A proposal made by Michael Bassey in 2013


A serious challenge to school education comes from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). In conjunction with the education publishers Pearsons, the CBI conducted a survey, in January and February 2012, of the opinions of 542 employers, chosen, as far as possible, to be representative of all sectors of the economy. The summary statement on raising standards in schools is one that most people, including teachers, would endorse:

The essential foundations for people’s working lives are laid during their time at school. Employers have long been keen for schools to ensure all young people emerge with the essential core skills they need and the right motivation to continue learning and to thrive in the workplace. Currently, too many young people are missing out – action is needed to raise ambition for all in schools.

The senior executives participating in the survey were asked to choose three from a list of six suggested reasons why school standards need to be raised. These were the results:

To provide business with the skills required 73%

To enable young people to lead fulfilling lives 57%

To minimise risk of educational underachievement contributing to social breakdown 57%

To reduce levels of unemployment in future 49%

To reduce the need for remedial training of future young recruits 31%

To develop employer involvement in schools to improve business reputation 14%

The first of these is properly to be expected from employers, but it is the second that shows that many in the business world have a deep understanding of what education should be about. (The third seems strange: was it the aftermath of the urban riots of the previous summer?)

A press release of 11 June 2012 shows that the CBI sees this as an endemic problem – which the education reforms of recent years have not abated.

Further progress on school and college leaver attainment requires radical new vision

The number of employers who are dissatisfied with school and college leavers’ basic skills remains stuck at around a third – the same as a decade ago – with 42% reporting they have had to provide remedial training for school and college leavers.  (CBI 11 June 2012)


Three years earlier, the chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Edward Leigh MP, commenting on the level of adult illiteracy in the UK and noting that an estimated half million benefit claimants have poor literacy, language and numeracy skills, said:

This is a dismal picture, both for the many who face diminished prospects in what they can achieve in life and for the competiveness of our country in the world economy.

Central to these challenges is the low level of reading and writing skills of a substantial number of school leavers. Numeracy is important – but literacy is essential. Currently the measure used in the England to determine the extent of proficiency in literacy is the percentage of 15-year-olds gaining C or a higher grade on GCSE English. This has slowly increased over the years and currently is around 65%. Looking at what is required to gain a C grade suggests that the 35% not achieving this:

  • will be potential liabilities as employees (as perceived by the CBI);
  • probably will be ineffective claimants for any benefit entitlements (as perceived by the PAC select committee)
  • will be unlikely to engage in and enjoy much of our written cultural wealth and heritage;
  • will struggle in pursuing paths of life-long learning in areas which might interest them;
  • will find difficulty as citizens in understanding the political issues aired in elections, resulting in either unquestioned tribal voting or choosing not to vote at all;
  • and, beyond all that, in terms of eventually becoming parents, will be unlikely to rear their children in homes which are culturally rich.

Yes, literacy matters.


So, why is it that the undoubtedly determined efforts of teachers and the persistent new initiatives of governments (of left and right) still leave 35% of our 15-year-olds with low literacy skills?

No doubt there are many different reasons. Coming from a culturally deprived home, with unambitious parents who were too tired, or disinclined, or absent, to read stories to the children; surrounded by mates who scorned reading; being utterly bored by school work; developing intellectually more slowly than peers and so getting ‘left behind’; taught by teachers who neglected the less able; these are all possible factors.

In 2000 the OECD carried out a survey of aspects of education in 17 member countries. It reported that in the UK, 54% of pupils ‘found school boring’, while 27% said there was ‘high noise level and disorder in classes’. Unfortunately it is not clear from the internet report how the questions were asked nor what age groups were involved so we can only take from this the supposition that some pupils experienced boredom and disorder.

Nine years later the Guardian reported that:

Ofsted is to launch a crackdown on “boring” teaching in response to concerns that children’s behaviour is deteriorating because they are not being stimulated enough in class.

My view is that the demands of the subject-based national curriculum, enforced by Ofsted inspections, and requiring a fragmented time-table, limit the freedom of teachers to respond creatively to the moods of their classes and the educational needs of individuals. Thus the present structure and requirements of the education system can promote boredom. Yes, there will be some teachers who are boring personalities and should never have entered teaching, but I believe they are few in number.

This paper puts forward a proposal in the form of a staging post during secondary education. But first let's look at what happens in primary school.


At the end of primary education, in year six, all children are tested (in externally marked SATs) in English (and mathematics) and assessed in terms of levels of attainment. Level 4 was originally designed as the median level but years ago government ministers decided that it should be the expectation for everyone. In England in 2011 82% of pupils made level 4 or better, nearly all of the other 18% being at level 3. It is currently defined (March 2013 - but could soon be changed again) in these terms:

Speaking and listening. Level 4. Pupils talk and listen with confidence in an increasing range of contexts. Their talk is adapted to the purpose: developing ideas thoughtfully, describing events and conveying their opinions clearly. In discussion, they listen carefully, making contributions and asking questions that are responsive to others’ ideas and views. They use appropriately some of the features of standard English vocabulary and grammar.

Reading. Level 4. In responding to a range of texts, pupils show understanding of significant ideas, themes, event and characters, beginning to use inference and deduction. They refer to the text when explaining their views. They locate and use ideas and information.

Writing. Level 4. Pupils’ writing in a range of forms is lively and thoughtful. Ideas are often sustained and developed in interesting ways and organised appropriately for the purpose of the reader. Pupils are beginning to use grammatically complex sentences, extending meaning. Spelling, including that of polysyllabic words that conform to regular patterns, is generally accurate. Full stop, capital letters and question marks are used correctly, and pupils are beginning to use punctuation within the sentence. Handwriting style is fluent, joined and legible.

An outstanding achievement of primary school teachers is that, since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, they have become well skilled at assessing the level of attainment of their pupils. This must be in large part because, unlike secondary teachers, they spend nearly all of school time for a year with the same children and so get to know them well. (Since there is a high correlation between teacher assessments and external tests at key stage two it is clear that the latter could be abolished – at considerable financial saving.)

Children develop at different rates as every teacher and most parents know. Thus it should be no surprise that the 2011 key stage 2 results for English in England are that 29% of the age group reached level 5, 53% reached level 4 and 18% reached level 3 (or in a few cases less). 

The subject-based teaching of secondary schools seems to require a level of literacy competence of at least level 4: pupils that have not yet reached it are in peril of getting left behind. So it would make sense for secondary schools to work hard in Year Seven to ensure that they soon reach that level:  that means every subject teacher also acting as an English language teacher.


Let’s abandon English Language as a GCSE subject. Not English literature – the study of which is part of our heritage.

In its place it is proposed here that there should be Literacy Competence Test, which, like the driving test, when passed would indicate the ability to drive the literacy roads of our society and culture as a competent citizen. Like the driving test it should be based on pass or fail – no grades or marks of distinction – and taken as often as necessary in order to pass. It could be taken at any time say after the age of 11.

It could be based, for example, on the present national curriculum level 6 requirements, as set put below.

Speaking and listening. Level 6. Pupils adapt their talk to the demands of different contexts with increasing confidence. Their talk engages the interest of the listener through the variety of its vocabulary and expression. Pupils take an active part in discussion, showing understanding of ideas and sensitivity to others. They are usually fluent in their use of standard English in formal situations.

Reading. Level 6. In reading and discussing a range of texts, pupils identify different layers of meaning and comment on their significance and effect. They give personal responses to literary texts, referring to aspects of language, structure and themes in justifying their views. They summarise a range of information from different sources.

Writing Level 6. Pupils’ writing often engages and sustains the readers’ interest, showing some adaptation of style and register to different forms, including using an impersonal style where appropriate. Pupils use a range of sentence structures and varied vocabulary to create effects. Spelling is generally accurate, including that of irregular words. Handwriting is neat and legible. A range of punctuation is usually used correctly to clarify meaning, and ideas are organised into paragraphs.

Obviously it would be in the best interests of secondary schools to get this done as early as possible and so it might be expected that teachers working with the first two years of secondary schooling would be expected to focus their subject teaching less on acquiring content knowledge of their subject and more on using that content to master the needed skills of literacy. Thus these teachers should see themselves less as subject specialists and more teachers of speaking, listening, reading and writing. (It could also make lessons more participative and less boring for their pupils).

Supposing that everybody had passed the LPT by the time they entered the third year of secondary education it could prove to be much easier for their teachers than is the case today. For example they could set reading or writing tasks and know that they could be tackled successfully by everybody in the class. And for students it might avoid some of the boredom that comes from not being up to the set task.


I submit that this approach to literacy could be a valuable step toward ensuring that all school leavers could:

  • meet the literacy expectations of future employers;
  • handle the bureaucratic demands of modern life and, when hardship hits, make effective claims for support;
  • be able to engage in and enjoy any of our written cultural wealth and heritage that takes their fancy;
  • be able to pursue paths of life-long learning in areas which might interest them;
  • be able as citizens to understanding the political issues aired in elections; and
  • in terms of eventually becoming parents, rear their children in homes which are culturally rich.

These should be the fulfilled entitlements of everyone.


Revised on 3 March 2013