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Core skills 'key to economy boost'

Published 13/05/2015

Improving maths skills has a major effect on a nation's economic performance, a report says
Improving maths skills has a major effect on a nation's economic performance, a report says

The UK could add trillions of pounds to its economy by boosting teenagers' reading, maths and science skills, according to an international report.

It reveals that currently, around one in five youngsters are lacking basic abilities in these core subjects, which carries a high cost for the nation.

The findings come in a global report that puts the UK 20th out of 76 countries in major new education rankings, behind nations including Poland, Slovenia and Vietnam.

The study, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looked at the potential economic gain to be hand from bringing students up to a basic level of skills by 2030.

It used data gathered from international tests taken by 15-year-olds around the world and examined the past relationship between improving skills and economic growth to quantify the possible economic impact of improving youngsters' skills.

Overall, the UK scored an average of 504 in international maths and science tests. This was behind 19 other nations, including Slovenia (507.6), Poland (521.7) Vietnam (519.9) and Estonia (531).

Singapore topped the list, with an average student performance of 562.5.

The report goes on to show that in the UK, around 20% of students are considered to be performing below a basic skills level. This means they struggle with simple questions such as circling the correct answers when asked "what happens when muscles are exercised" or have difficulty doing basic currency conversions.

It found that in nine of the 76 countries - Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Morocco, Indonesia, Peru, Qatar, Colombia and Botswana - more than two thirds of students fail to meet the basic skills level, while at the other end of the scale, in Singapore, Hong Kong, Estonia and Korea it is around 10% or less.

The researchers calculate that in the UK, ensuring that all youngsters reach a basic skills level by 2030 would add 3.65 trillion US dollars (£2.33 trillion) to the nation's economy by 2095 (143% of current GDP).

On another measure, increasing the average achievement of current students by 25 points over the next 15 years would boost the UK's economy by 8.653 trillion US dollars (£5.6 trillion) (340%)

This kind of improvement is achievable by both low and high-income nations, the report says, with 28 countries improving at this rate over the past 15 years.

An editorial to the report says: "The first thing the results show is that the quality of schooling in a country is a powerful predictor of the wealth that countries will produce in the long run.

"Or, put the other way around, the economic output that is lost because of poor education policies and practices leaves many countries in what amounts to a permanent state of economic recession - and one that can be larger and deeper than the one that resulted from the financial crisis at the beginning of the millennium, out of which many countries are still struggling to climb."

It adds that improving the quality of schools so that every student reaches at least Level 1 on international PISA tests - and are able to master basic maths and science concepts and read and understand simple texts - has a large impact on the economy.

"The report shows that if every 15-year-old student in the world reached at least the baseline Level 1 of performance on the PISA scale by 2030 the benefits for economic growth and sustainable development would be enormous."

During a debate on the report, which discussed issues such as how the UK can follow places like Shanghai, where a large proportion of youngsters reach at least a basic threshold, Lord Nash suggested that it was about having certain expectations.

"I think it's partly a mindset, an expectation," he said. "There are plenty of examples of schools that have raised the bar dramatically."

Lord Nash later said: " One of my priorities is trying to break the inter-generational unemployment we see in places like former mining villages, coastal towns, up and down the country.

"Although we have relatively high employment in this country and we have created a lot of new jobs, we still have children brought up in communities on the coast or mining towns who just live in a world of unemployment, their parents are unemployed their grandparents are unemployed.

"It's shocking that for generations we've allowed that to happen. We have to break that cycle, partly by welfare reform but mainly through education."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Our own research - backed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies - shows that doing well in school adds an average of £140,000 to a young person's earnings, proving the value of our reforms to the economy and pupils themselves."

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