Since 1995, when Birmingham started its determined push to raise whole-city levels of literacy and numeracy, there have been a number of structural changes to both the local and the national education and skills landscape. Throughout all of these changes the city has been able to make meaningful statements about the progress within Birmingham and how it is doing compared with other major cities, and against national average figures. At the same time there have been contradictory statements about whether those national averages are improving or declining; or improving in absolute terms yet falling behind the improvements being made by other countries.
Birmingham’s initial development investments in children 0-5 are now showing through in attainments for those children at age 16. The investments in primary and secondary age pupils are showing through in young people aged 16-25. The investments in adults are showing through in the improved skills levels of the workforce. In 1995 we believed that it might take 15-20 years to get Birmingham, from its very low base, up to national standards for all-age literacy and numeracy. So what do the available 2012/2013 figures tell us?
- In 1995 only one third of Birmingham children entered the first years of schooling with basic language/number skills in place. In 2013 the early language and numerical understandings and skills, on entry to school, are now at national levels – with double the number of children having the required basic skills. Given the diverse population of Birmingham, the number of under-fives growing up in families recently arrived from countries where English is not a national language, and the persistently disrupting effects of poverty on too many families in the city – this is a very good achievement.
- In 1995 less than half of the city’s children made the transition from primary to secondary school with sufficient language, literacy and numeracy to tackle the secondary curriculum. Up to 2000 there was a rapid boost to the skills of primary-age children but this then began to lose momentum as schools over-focused on national testing and has only recently accelerated again. The English and Maths abilities of Birmingham children are now double what they were in 1995 and, again, are at national levels.
- In 1995 Birmingham was in the lowest part of the national performance list for success levels in core subjects at the end of five years of secondary school education. Only one third of 16 year olds had at least five good passes in major subjects. The overall figure for such young people, in 2012, now stands at 88%, above the average for the country as a whole. Even if high-level passes in the core skills of English and Maths are included as a requirement within the five good performances, this was achieved (2012) by 60% of young people – slightly better than national average. By 2013 this percentage had risen to 62%.
- The number of 16-18 year olds in some form of employment, education or training has increased substantially, meaning that far more young people have a continuing opportunity to improve their core skills, with 95% of young people now being functionally literate and numerate. Functional skills improvement is now a part of all education and training programmes for young people and adults.
- Birmingham was a national pathfinder in developing whole-city approaches to raising overall levels of adult literacy, English language, and numerical skills. The city established a national and international reputation for this work. Regular skills’ testing has shown substantial incremental increases in adult basic skills levels between 1997 and 2012. Aspirational floor targets aimed at (‘No locality below this skills level’) were all surpassed, with most progress being made in the lowest-skill areas of the city.
- Community organisations, housing associations, schools, employability training agencies, major employers, trade unions, probation and prison services: all see themselves as having a role in improving the ways that the young people and adults they work with access opportunities to improve their literacy, language and numeracy skills. This is far removed from the situation in 1995 when developing skills in adults and young people was seen almost entirely as the preserve of colleges and adult education services. The aim, in 1995, was to get the improvement of core skills built in as a connecting thread woven through the infrastructures of the city. There has been considerable success in this.
Much has been said nationally claiming that any national progress could have been due to grade-inflation, mechanical teaching-to-the-tests and so on. There has undoubtedly been an element of this but the city’s progress on the scale outlined above cannot be simply explained away so simplistically. Real progress has been made and the city should be pleased with what it has been able to achieve.
Birmingham has been right therefore to celebrate the shift in achievement levels from the poor performances of 1995 to having closed virtually all the gaps to national attainment levels, and some substantial closing of the gaps between the various groups of children/young people within the city itself.
There is more to be done. Being ‘average’ is not sufficient if Birmingham is to have the national and international edge it aspires to. There are sufficient dedicated people and agencies in the city to ensure that improvements continue to be made. Progress in the near future will rely on ironing out the remaining variabilities across the city. Consolidating the gains so far will not be enough though. Further progress is likely to be highly reliant on a strong and consistent focus on the motivations, behaviours, resources, attitudes and aspirations of Birmingham’s children, young people and adults – and not letting overconcerns with structures get in the way of good learning.
The Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership website has been wound down. Archive material is incorporated into this www.thewordsthething.org.uk website (with email@example.com as the link email address for all enquiries about the work of the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership).