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Adding up some very big numbers

A recent editorial in FE Focus raised concerns about adult literacy and numeracy statistics. The leader claimed that "the official definition of literacy and numeracy are at best misleading, at worst nonsense".

The editorial was right. The definition and research are unreliable and some figures bandied around are a gross exaggeration. This does no one any good.

How did we get into this mess? The first problem is the research that has been used to assess adults' literacy and numeracy skills. The second is the target audience the Government has identified for adult literacy and numeracy programmes. Surveys in the 1990s suggested that between 15 and 19 per cent of adults had poor basic skills. However, the International Adult Literacy Survey in the late 1990s suggested a much higher figure of 23 per cent or seven million adults.

Although accepted at the time, it is now thought that the IAL survey had serious methodological flaws and that these resulted in too high an estimate. However, last year the Department for Education and Skills'

Skills for Life research, using roughly the same methods as earlier surveys, again suggested that about seven million adults in England had difficulties with basic skills.

I now think that the assessment method used in these surveys was unreliable. However, as I was responsible for commissioning some of the earlier surveys, I'm as much to blame as anyone for the inadequacy of the method. All of the surveys used so-called "real-life" tasks to assess the literacy and numeracy skills of adults and that's why the results led to headlines such as "millions of adults can't read a bus or train timetable".

Although these tasks assess something, it is doubtful that what they assess are literacy and numeracy skills. In fact, it is just as likely that "reading a bus or train timetable" is as much about searching for complex visual information as reading.

Because these so-called "real-life" tasks demand two, three or more different types of skills, older adults perform worse than younger adults.

Does this mean that more of these older adults had poor literacy and numeracy skills? Is it more likely that these tasks require good short-term and working memory, and that the effects of ageing mean that more older people get the answers wrong?

The second problem is the size of the target audience for adult literacy and numeracy programmes. Not content with the seven million figure, the Government's Skills for Life strategy took as its target audience all adults without the equivalent of an A* to C GCSE in English and maths. So the target audience for adult literacy and numeracy programmes increased from just less than 25 per cent of adults to more than 80 per cent of adults, which is about 26 million.

This is difficult to believe. Can anyone seriously believe that four of every five people they see in the street have problems with reading, writing or basic maths? Unless being literate means being able to understand a Bertrand Russell tome and being numerate means feeling at ease with quadratic equations.

So what do we need to do about this? First, we need to establish a reliable method for assessing the level of skills adults need to operate and progress in our society.

Second, we need a major research study, using reliable methods, to find out how many adults really can be classed as having poor literacy and numeracy skills.

Third, and I'm not alone in suggesting this, we need an independent institution to verify government claims of reaching targets. Without such an institution, claims will always be seen, sometimes wrongly, to be more about "spin" than about actual achievement.

When I first became involved in literacy work with adults, it was difficult to convince anyone that there was a problem. After people accepted that a problem existed, they had to be convinced that it was sizeable. Now we have to convince them that it is not a problem so sizeable that it includes almost everyone.

Alan Wells is director of the Basic Skills Agency

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