UK literacy at worrying levels, says world study

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A frightening gap in adult literacy standards in Britain is revealed in an international study published yesterday. The gulf in literacy levels is exceeded only in America, the report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows.

Experts estimate that there are about seven million British adults unable to read, write or add up to the level they would need to communicate in the world of business. The report also reveals, though, that Brit-ain's higher education system is one of the big success stories with a higher percentage getting university degrees than any other country in the world.

The gap between the performance of the top 10 per cent of adults and the bottom 10 per cent in Britain is 153 points, according to the OECD's measures. Of the 13 countries surveyed, only the American gap ­ 192 ­ points is higher.

Estelle Morris, the new Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said of the gulf in literacy standards: "I think it is a real priority for us and in the last four years we have done a great deal about that, but the figures are still quite frightening." Ms Morris admitted it was a "real challenge" to persuade adults who lacked basic skills to go back to education. "Their whole experience of education is one where it has let them down," she added.

The author of the report, Andreas Schleicher, said: "It is not good news for lifelong learning and the idea of continuing education and training. It shows that what we don't get right at the beginning of a person's education we can't fix later on."

Ms Morris said the Government was planning to run courses in community centres, clubs and even pubs to provide environments in which adults switched off from the school system could feel comfortable. The number of adults attending classes in the basics had risen from 250,000 to 400,000 in the last year. Ministers had set a target for cutting the illiteracy figure by 750,000 in three years.

Meanwhile, those who gain a university qualification in Britain are more likely to find a well-paid job than are graduates in other countries. In this country, 93 per cent are in employment compared with an average global employment rate for graduates of 90 per cent. Figures show Britain has has overtaken America for the first time in the percentage of youngsters graduating from university ­ 35.6 per cent compared with 33.2 per cent. The UK graduation figure is the highest for any OECD country.

Mr Schleicher said: "Ten years ago you would have thought that figure was unattainable but now four countries have surpassed the US, including the UK. At the beginning of the 1990s the UK figure was around 20 per cent and the US around 30 per cent."

America still has a larger percentage of youngsters opting to go on to higher education but a drop-out rate of one in three students means fewer complete their courses.

Figures also show that Britons aged 30 to 44 who have university qualifications earn on average 76 per cent more than those who left school with five top GCSE grade passes or their equivalent. Mainly because of the increase in numbers going on to university, Britons can now expect to spend longer in education than people in almost any other country.

The report says: "Today a five-year-old in the UK can expect, over the course of their lifetime to participate, either full or part-time, in almost 19 years of education." The OECD average is 16.7 years.

The report, which looks at trends in education between 1995 and 1999, says British spending on higher education is $699 (£503) above the OECD average of $9,063 (£6,528). However, spending on schooling in Britain is slightly lower than the OECD average. At primary level, spending is $3,329 (£2,398) per pupil compared with an average of $3,940 (£2,838). At secondary level Britain spends and $5,230 (£3,767) per pupil compared with $5,294 (£3,814).

Britain was one of five countries where spending per university student had declined in the four-year period ­ by 10 per cent ­ despite an overall increase in the budget, largely due to a 5 per cent increase in contributions from the private sector for research and scholarships, the OECD reported.

Overall figures for 1998, the last year included in the report, show that Britain spent 4.9 per cent of GDP on education compared with 5.2 per cent four years earlier. Education's share of total public spending in Britain rose during that period ­ from 11.2 per cent to 11.9 per cent. The report also reveals what it terms "a growing trend" for governments to leave management of the state school sector to the private sector.

Labour has made an increasing involvement of the private sector in the running of state schools and education authorities a target for its second term of office. Legislation will be foreshadowed in next week's Queen's Speech to allow private companies to take over the running of successful schools and education authorities as well as failing ones.