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Many British adults lack basic numeracy and literacy skills

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Gthongs in white in the early 2000s, the British were disturbed by popping out of cupboards, drawers and sofas whenever people were asked to read or compose. The animals were the stars of the government television an ad that aimed to encourage adults to sign up for math and literacy classes. Advertisements drove adults into classrooms and screamed toddlers out of living rooms. For a time, the control authorities forbade them to show up before 7:30 p.m.

The OECD, a club of predominantly rich countries, found in 2012 that 9 million adults in England did not achieve minimum standards in literacy, numeracy or both. They may struggle to understand all the instructions on an aspirin bottle or tell how much gas is left in a car by looking at the gauge. The government says that today half of adults can count no better than a child of primary school age. This complicates efforts to improve productivity.

The OECD found that most of Britain’s low-skilled adults are in work. Many were outwardly well-qualified: 10% were university students and, worryingly, 7% were recent graduates. England appears unusual in that young people who have only recently completed formal education are about as illiterate and illiterate as older people (see chart).

Over the past decade, the government has introduced changes to the last few years of secondary school, the period when Britons’ basic skills appear to decline most dramatically. They planned to do the reconstruction in 2015 gcses (national exams taken at age 16) are more demanding. Students who do not earn passes in maths and English must continue to retake these tests until they are 18 years old.

It may not be enough. In many rich countries, young people learn mathematics and their mother tongue until they reach adulthood. In England, children who manage to get a passing grade continue to drop these subjects early. And the benefits of forcing low-achieving students to sit through endless retakes are dubious. Sam Sims, of the charity National Numeracy, says the practice is demoralizing to teenagers who have already failed at standard schooling.

Meanwhile, adult education was in its infancy. Since the Gremlins, adults without basic qualifications have been offered free night classes. But enrollment fell from 1.8 million in 2012 to 700,000 last year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank. Employers don’t seem to be fussing. A government survey shows that only 3-5% of companies with low-skilled staff believe their workers need to refresh basic skills.

Adults rarely discuss embarrassing deficits with friends or bosses, says Alex Stephenson of the Institute for Learning and Work, another think tank. So getting them to sign up for skill courses is a tough job. Colleges struggling with tight budgets usually find that there are classes that are more profitable, even if the government is willing to cover the cost of the courses. Today, only two-fifths of people seem to know that free help is available, Mr Stevenson says, and to a large extent they are not the ones who need it.

The government is now investing about £560 million ($640 million) in a three-year Multiplication project aimed at boosting the base count. Exactly what this looks like will vary by region; local authorities were told to create schemes to suit the needs of their areas, chosen from a menu of ideas drawn up in Westminster. The government wants to see lessons learned in the workplace. He also wants officials to set up schemes for specific groups such as parents, prisoners and future nurses.

This project will need to overcome the shortage of maths tutors (many of whom now earn money by helping teenagers with their many re-sits). Literacy advocates wonder why their subject isn’t getting more attention. And all this probably comes too late to boost England’s performance in the next international adult skills rankings, due in 2024. Get ready for another unpleasant surprise.

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