Exam halll

Do one in five Scots children leave primary school ‘functionally illiterate’?

Nicola Sturgeon has faced pressure in recent weeks over her government’s record on education.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been criticised by opposition politicians for perceived failures in educational attainment.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

In an attack at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament on 3 May, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson cited figures on childhood literacy amongst pupils leaving primary school.

When statistics for 2016 were released on 9 May, Scottish Tories’ education spokeswoman Liz Smith MSP said functional illiteracy had gone up nine percentage points in the last four years.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) found Davidson’s claim to be false, and based on an inaccurate interpretation of the statistical data.


Statistics on literacy and numeracy are collated in alternate years in the Scottish Government’s Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN).

The ‘one in five’ statistic that Davidson cited comes from the 2014 report on literacy. The most recent 2016 results came out on 9 May, days after she made her claim.

A sample of Scots pupils in P4, P7 and S2 are tested to establish their reading, writing, listening and talking skills.

The report states: “Pupils are assigned to one of four reporting categories based on the percentage of questions they answer correctly.”

The categories are ‘performing very well at the level’, ‘performing well at the level’, ‘working within the level’, and ‘not yet working within the level’.

The Scottish Conservatives provided FFS with a table to support Davidson’s ‘functionally illiterate’ claim which referred to S2 pupils, who left primary school two years before. They included all those with reading skills that were were either ‘working within the level’ or ‘not yet working within the level’ in their definition of functionally illiterate

This accounted for 20 per cent (or one in five) of pupils at that age group in 2014.

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But crucial to the claim from Davidson was that one in five are functionally illiterate when they leave primary school, not when they are in second year of high school.

Twelve per cent of those tested for reading skills in their final year of primary school were in the bottom two categories and hence within the Tories’ definition, while 33 per cent were in the bottom two categories on writing. It is possible that the Scottish Conservatives combined these two figures to come up with their ‘one in five’ statistic.

But what does functionally illiterate actually mean?

The Conservatives’ analysis requires those children ‘working within the level’ on reading and writing to be considered functionally illiterate.

We must look at the definitions used in the survey referenced. The SSLN does not use functional illiteracy as a measure, and a spokeswoman confirmed the figures only relate to “pupils not yet working within the expected Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) levels”.

She told FFS it is “not correct” to associate the bottom two categories of performance with functional illiteracy, which is a term most often used to refer to adult illiteracy.

Functional illiteracy is used to differentiate between those who are purely illiterate (cannot read or write) and those who have basic skills but are not proficient enough to function in situations requiring adult literacy.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) defines someone with functional illiteracy as a “person who cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective function of his or her group and community and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his or her own and the community’s development.”

A number of studies have given different figures for UK-wide adult and school leavers’ functional illiteracy but there is no consistent definition for the term.

There is evidence that the literacy skills of Scotland’s school pupils have worsened over the last four years, which is shown in the most recent survey. But the Scottish Conservatives’ references to functional illiteracy are not based on correct interpretations of the data.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: False

The claim from Ruth Davidson that one in five pupils leave primary school functionally illiterate is false. The statistics she is referencing do not relate directly to primary school leavers and she is using an inaccurate definition of the term which is not recognised by official indicators of literacy in Scotland.

This claim is false

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our community forum.

In response to a Ferret Fact Service request for evidence, The Scottish Conservatives provided links to the 2014 SSLN report and statistical tables.

This fact check was also published in the Sunday Herald on 14 May 2017.


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