Following on from yesterday's story on the basic failings in literacy, even of graduate job applications. It occurred to me to check the literacy rates across different countries. The list is interesting, for the UK comes out as a highly literate country . Only one problem, despite claiming full adult literacy, even the UK statistics agencies point out that over 7 million people in Britain are functionally illiterate.
Perhaps under the circumstances, we should not be surprised that numeracy is even worse: The Department for Education's own figures suggest that 47% of the adult population understand percentages so little that they would not be able to understand the proposed new food labelling system.
Despite rising pass rates at national exams, despite constant tinkering with the education system, the UK labour force has a large number of dramatically under-skilled workers.
This is a crisis that remains unresolved, despite the "education, education, education" best intentions that Tony Blair brought into office. The problem is that the social standing and respect for education in the UK is pretty low. The result is that the status of teaching is low. The primary consequence of low status is that the general quality of teachers is also inadequate. The various gimmicks that successive governments have applied to the sector - notably the national curriculum- have probably weakened standards overall: science teach is down, language teaching is down sharply and, despite better exam grades, there is considerable anecdotal evidence of generally low literacy and numeracy levels.
The urgency of the problem is clear- the latest forecasts of shortfalls in NHS staffing make for sobering reading. It is not just an economic question of skill shortages. The problem is one of trust. Generally there is a correlation between low levels of education and a propensity to commit crime. The reason why employers also prefer to hire overseas nationals, even for unskilled work, is that they can not trust British born workers. Unreliable attendance, poor punctuality, low productivity, and a generally bad attitude are all problems that British employers face on a daily basis. Not, however, with immigrant labour. The Polish capacity for hard work is quickly becoming proverbial across the country. Hard working, overwhelmingly law abiding, with a positive attitude: no wonder British Employers prefer to hire overseas labour.
Last night I watched a repeat of the Programme "Grand Designs"- the featured House construction was a prefabricated structure imported and erected by German workers. The Germans arrived on site in Britain at five am, to ensure that they could start on time at seven. Unfortunately, the crane, supplied buy the British, arrived three hours late- no-one had checked the address. The Germans had planned to avoid problems: the British were simply sloppy.
It is therefore not a surprise that British workers work the longest hours in Europe: they have to.
The question now is: how to reverse this decay of the social fabric? Uneducated, feral children, prone to violence and criminality, instead of contributing to civic society, end up as its enemies. For me, the key issue is to demonstrate that actions have clear consequences. This has to be part of a social agenda that insists on personal responsibility. Social dependence on welfare must be challenged: limiting the time that certain benefits can be paid, for example, may well be the way forward. In the end, an agenda of personal freedom demands personal responsibility in order to create autonomous citizens.
However, without basic education, our society is not even making it past first base for too many of its citizens.