WA's primary school system is failing to teach basic reading and maths, leading to an alarming jump in illiterate and innumerate workers, according to some of the State's most influential business leaders.

Liz Harris, chief executive of Challenger Institute of Technology, said the latest figures showed up to 49 per cent of workers were functionally illiterate.

A growing number of students without basic language and maths skills was forcing the institute to employ extra literacy and numeracy staff to complement their trade courses, she said.

Town of Vincent mayor Alannah MacTiernan, who is on the board of the Challis early education centre, said there needed to be a rethink of the "pedagogy" in the education system that shied away from repetitively teaching the basics, especially among disadvantaged groups.

"Why is it that Aboriginal kids who spent three or four years on a mission school could end up reading and writing and their grandchildren now spend 12 years in school and come out knowing nothing," she said.

The comments were made at the quarterly Australian Institute of Management WA/West Business CEO Voice roundtable.

The "back-to-basics" sentiment was backed by one of WA's leading home builders, Dale Alcock, who runs a major apprentice program. He said more also needed to be done to promote apprenticeships.

"We embark with, if you like, many of the young kids who come through the system and the system has failed them," he said.

"It is about describing different pathways for kids that for many decades have only been 'it's tertiary or it's not good enough'."

City of Perth chief executive Frank Edwards said there was a lack of investment in struggling students.

"The high quality graduates are as good as they have ever been but when you get to the bottom 30 or 40 per cent I think they are struggling with a lot of what we would consider the essentials - basic numeracy and literacy," he said.

Leadership WA chief executive Sue van Leeuwen said it was not necessarily about spending more money, but being smarter in directing funds towards under-fives.

Education Minister Peter Collier said work was being done to build on the gains made by WA students in last year's NAPLAN tests.

The West Australian

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