Still Running to Stand Still

09/10/2013 16:30 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

There's been confirmation once again this week - if confirmation were needed - that the UK has a problem with basic skills. The first round of the OECD's huge international adult skills programme - - tested 166,000 people in 24 industrialised countries, including nearly 9,000 in the UK (more precisely, England and Northern Ireland). We did not emerge with honour. In literacy we came out just below average and in numeracy significantly below.

But the real story and the one that most of the media rightly homed in was the particular problem among young people. The 16-24 age group in the UK came near the bottom of the table for both literacy and numeracy. Most strikingly, we are the only one of the 24 nations where 16-24-year-olds do no better in numeracy than do the over-55s. And with this came a stark warning from the OECD: the UK faces a shrinking skills pool in the future.

We're not alone, however. The US, ignominiously, now stands near the bottom of all the lists (what has gone wrong there? forget about the budget, President Obama, this is your - and your successor's - real problem), as do Italy and Spain. But at least in the case of the latter two countries, there are signs of movement in the right direction, with young people overtaking their elders. Mind you, they're not doing so on the same scale as South Korea, where there is a massive gap between the skills of the young (high) and the old (low) - evidence of how this rapidly industrialised country has worked hard to develop its education system. When I was in the BBC's education department a few years ago, we faced repeated visits from delegations of Korean officials wanting to find out how best to use the media to support education: they were serious and relentless.

But where does all this leave the UK? Clearly our education system has not delivered the goods in quite the same way. Rising exam passes over the past two decades - nearly 60% of teenagers in England now get a maths GCSE pass with at least a grade C - do not seem to translate into maths skills in the workplace and everyday life. The government's own 2011 Skills for Life survey showed that almost half the working-age population in England have the everyday maths skills expected of children at primary school. An increase in public spending on adult skills has brought some improvements in literacy but virtually none in numeracy.

It's not that things have got worse - there never was a golden age in maths education. But, crucially, we have not improved. We are - as Lord Leitch said in his ambitious report seven years ago - running to stand still, while other countries, particularly in the Pacific Rim, are striding ahead. We have not yet worked out how to do that and politicians simply blaming each other's period in government for the skills deficit does not help. What are the Japanese and the Koreans (and the Finns, Dutch and several others) doing that we are not?

Different education systems are of course founded on different cultures and these cannot be imported wholesale. The 'I can't do maths' attitude is still widespread in the UK and too many people think it doesn't matter if they don't or won't do maths. At National Numeracy, we've spent the first year and a half of our existence pointing out that it does matter - big time. Maths is in everything; you can't opt out. But everyone can - with effort and support - achieve the maths skills they need for everyday life and work: there is no such thing as an exclusive 'maths gene'. Sometimes I think the message is getting through, but most of the time I know it's going to take much longer. National attitudes don't change overnight or even over the course of 18 months. But ever onward and upward - and NN will soon be launching a 'National Numeracy Challenge', a mass drive to improve numeracy skills, with an important role for employers and education and community organisations.

But maths denial starts early. Most people who struggle with numeracy will tell you that their problems began at school. What we therefore need are more positive messages from parents and teachers, more attention to ensuring that children grasp the essentials of numeracy at primary school (the school curriculum is currently in danger of piling on too much too early), and at secondary school more emphasis on problem-solving and applying maths concepts to real life; the maths GCSE does not prepare young people properly for life, as many employers know and this week's OECD survey now shows.