Illiteracy challenges British and US future competitiveness

Throughout the Arab world, parents eye English education for their children, spending small fortunes on British-run private schools and colleges.

Some 60 years ago, one of the most revered institutions of learning was Alexandria’s Victoria College, founded in 1902, whose illustrious student-roll included the sons of exiled European nobles, the Crown Prince of Iraq, King Hussein of Jordan, Omar Sharif and the Palestinian writer Edward Said. Students were strictly disciplined by strait-laced British teachers, but many emerged as high fliers in almost every professional stratum and retain loyalty to their alma mater until today.

England’s educational system was developed over centuries and produced some of the planet’s finest minds. Sadly, the same cannot be said nowadays.

A study of literacy and numeracy in 24 countries conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation found that 16–24 year olds in England and Northern Ireland are being outstripped by their counterparts in Asia and Europe, coming 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. Japan and Finland came out on top, while young Americans fared even worse than Britons in the ranking, astonishing when one considers that the US is the world’s richest nation, looked up to as the land of opportunity. According to the CIA’s World Fact Book 99 percent of Americans and Britons are literate, but the question is to what extent?

According to the World Literacy Foundation, six million Britons are illiterate while eight million are “functionally illiterate” to the extent they struggle to read a check book or a medicine label, which is out of sync with the CIA analysis. This sorry state of affairs has led to millions being unable to find jobs, leaving many dependent on social security and local authority housing. The UK spends billions annually on State education but as The Telegraph puts it, children are “still blighted by Dickensian-style illiteracy” with “one-in-six pupils struggling to read when they leave primary school and one-in-ten boys aged 11 has a reading age no better than a seven-year-old.” US literacy rates are similarly poor and in some states on the decline. In New York, for instance, a whopping 80 percent of high school graduates lack skills in reading, writing and mathematics. Last year, America’s educational standards were placed 17th in the developed world. If the trend continues on a downward spiral, the economic future of both nations is at risk.

Governments and educators are left scratching their heads wondering what’s causing such failures in education—and, more to the point, what to do about it. “Experts” have come up with a long list of potential causes, variously blaming poverty, family dysfunction, lack of parental involvement, television, computer games, texting, the low status of the teaching profession, poorly-paid teachers, teaching methods, dumbed-down examinations, library closures. No doubt those are contributory factors to this worsening educational crisis, but I believe the fundamentals are missing from that list.

In my view, the experts are failing to see the wood for the trees—in this case, children’s attitudes toward education. A few days ago, I watched with fascination a BBC documentary “Malala’s Story” that takes viewers on a journey through the life of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl and activist from the Swat Valley who was shot by the Taleban for promoting girls’ education. Malala was flown to the UK for treatment and now lives with her parents and brothers in Birmingham where she attends school. This is a fearless child who was ready to die for her right to education, so it’s no wonder she’s surprised how little the opportunity is appreciated by her British schoolmates. For most British children, free schooling is not a privilege but a chore to be endured. Put simply, they’ve had it too good for too long.

Secondly, in developing countries, no education means no job, no income, no status, and in the worst case scenario no food, which by itself is an incentive for parents to invest in their children’s schooling and to ensure they live up to the mark. In Egypt, for example, it’s almost de rigueur for mothers to assist with their child’s homework and to be around to ensure he or she studies hard for exams. British kids, however, do not view education in terms of survival because, after all, there’s a welfare system able to catch them when they fall or, if they’re lucky enough, parents who pick up their bills. In the ‘60s, teens could hardly wait to leave the nest whereas today, three million parents over 50 have grown-up children living at home with some pushing 40.

Thirdly, there’s an absence of discipline in British schools where teachers are regularly insulted, heckled and even physically attacked by pupils. Hundreds of pupils are suspended for either abuse or assault each day. In my day, we stood up when the teacher came to class and if we misbehaved we could expect to be slapped on the hand or on the back of the legs with a ruler. I’m not an advocate for corporal punishment in schools but discipline so kids understand their boundaries.

The topic is complex but unless the rot of decadence is halted, coming generations of Brits and Americans will witness a decline in their respective nations’ global influence and economies, even as Asian tigers roar louder.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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One Response to Illiteracy challenges British and US future competitiveness

  1. It is an oft-repeated axiom that a person can learn a whole lot about a society by how it treats its poor; but just as much may be learned by looking at how that same society treats its rich. Indeed, the economic future of the poor—and our nation—will be determined in the coming decades by how we treat the people in this country who create great wealth. It will be determined by our understanding of the so-called rich and by our need to foster and protect this minority of true wealth creators.