A recent survey in the UK has revealed an alarming number of school-leavers lack even basic skills in reading and numeracy, which once again proves that levels of literacy even in developed countries are not something to be taken for granted.
It points to a bleak future for young people there, together with the rising youth unemployment rate.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are the cornerstones of a basic education. But one in five young people in the UK leave school without them, and that statistic has not improved since the 1960s. Teacher Saleem Raja at East London Skills picks up the pieces schools have dropped, teaching 16-19 year olds wholly unprepared for the job market.
“It’s purely down to the individual, again, interlinked with upbringing, how the family raises them,” says Saleem Raja. “Sometimes it could be a case of their personality, they want to show, ‘I’m not smart, I’m not a study type of person, I just cannot get along with people,’ so that is a big problem as well.”
Saleem teaches small classes of school leavers who have realized they cannot get a job with their level of writing and math skills. These students are managing to stay the course, despite a 30 per cent drop-out rate, and a poor school record.
“I missed out a lot in year 2010, and in year 2011 I didn’t really get the chance to revise much and get done much help,” says Raja’s student Kiran.
“I think I was distracted a lot. There were a lot of students and I got distracted,” echoes Amin.
“At school I wasn’t able to complete my English and Maths, because at that age, I wasn’t really into it. I kind of messed up," confesses Saira.
The girls both want jobs in retail. They are in the right place, and they are not alone in their lack of literacy.
Newham is one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, where more than two-thirds of children live in low-income families. But it is now also home to the Olympic stadium, and the recently opened Westfield Stratford City, Europe’s largest shopping centre. Westfield aimed to hire 5,000 local people, almost half of them from the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Candidates, managers say, were enthusiastic, but it was soon discovered more than 300 of them could not read or write enough to fill out a basic form.
Westfield is giving remedial classes to its new recruits, in the hopes their enthusiasm will carry them through. But a ComRes market research agency survey shows companies all over the city feel the education system right up to university is letting them down.
“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 Londonlovesbusiness.com. “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 nearly 800,000 are now out of work. But if businesses cannot count on them to be able to add up and read instructions, they are unlikely to want to risk hiring them.