John Lewis boss says young staff lack basic numeracy skills

Sharon White, Chair John Lewis

Young people starting work at John Lewis stores lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, the boss of the department store chain has said.

Dame Sharon White’s comments were reported in the Times after she spoke to a commission set up by the newspaper to look at the UK education system in the light of the Covid crisis.

She said the firm had to provide basic catch-up classes to some staff.

Some lacked skills beyond the level of a 10 year-old, Dame Sharon said.

“To have done 10 years, 11, 12 years of education, and not having, in many cases, functional literacy, certainly, pretty typically not having functional numeracy beyond the age of, I’d say, 10, 11, means that they may then have fabulous people skills and fabulous skills in terms of operating in a team but that’s almost outwith the education system,” Dame Sharon told the Commission.

The pandemic has focused attention on education, after students missed out on many weeks of schooling. The government has pledged to support a catch-up programme.

But there has been renewed debate over whether the UK education system, which is centred around academic qualifications, including GCSEs and A’levels, adequately prepares young people for work.

John Lewis is not alone in its concern about a lack of basic skills, and not just among school leavers.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) that students use to apply to university addresses the issue on its website.

In the section on getting a job it says a “significant number of employers say graduates lack basic skills in numeracy and literacy”.

It goes on to point out that a weakness in basic skills can affect performance in everyday tasks, for example, the ability to draw out information from written texts and instructions, produce written reports, or work through calculations and make sense of numerical data”.

The Times’ commission is gathering views from a wide range of people, including former prime minister Tony Blair, director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris and children’s laureate Cressida Cowell. It is due to publish its report in 2022.

Dame Sharon has been chairwoman of the John Lewis Partnership, which also owns Waitrose, since 2019. Before that she was the head of Ofcom, the government body monitoring the communications industry.

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