More than 20 per cent of adults - around 7 million people - can barely read, write or add up.
The figures were described as "shocking" by Sir Claus Moser, whose report this week on literacy and numeracy calls for a crusade as stirring as that to raise the school-leaving age to 16.
He said: "It is staggering that over the years millions of children have been leaving school hardly able to read and write, and that today millions of adults have the same problems."
One in five adults, given the Yellow Pages index cannot find the page on plumbers. One in four cannot calculate the change they should get out of pound;2 after buying a loaf of bread costing 68p and two tins of soup at 45p each. Of the 7 million illiterate or innumerate adults, only about 250,000 are trying to acquire these skills.
Sir Claus's national strategy sets ambitious new targets. Each year from 2002, 450,000 adults should pass a threshold for literacy, and a similar number for numeracy. This compares with fewer than 70,000 a year at present.
A key objective will be to help younger people: by 2010, 95 per cent of 19-year-olds should have adequate literacy and 90 per cent should be numerate.
To succeed, the report says, people who want to improve their basic skills must get free teaching. Anyone signing on for welfare benefits should be entitled to a simple assessment test to see if they need help. The Government should fund day-release courses for people at work.
The report calls for new national literacy and numeracy tests to give credible indicators of a person's ability. At least 15,000 full-time basic skills teachers will be needed - there are currently fewer than 4,000.
Basic skills education is currently in the hands of three inspectorates - the Further Education Funding Council, the Training Standards Council and the Office for Standards in Education. But, the report says, the standards are "insufficiently rigorous" and there should be a common inspection framework.
The one in five adults with low literacy skills range from those who cannot read or write at all, to those who want to brush up rusty skills. Problems with numeracy are more common than with literacy. "Some researchers suggest that nearly half of all adults in Britain have numeracy skills below the level expected of an 11-year-old."
Almost half a million people whose first language is not English are struggling. About one in four of a sample could not fill in their names and addresses on a form; understand a simple notice; read their child's school timetable; or use a calendar. Many people are unaware of their poor skills, or do not regard it as a problem. "And of course there is often a strong stigma in admitting to it."
The ultimate target should be the virtual elimination of poor basic skills. But there should be clear milestones along the way. By 2010 the aim should be to halve the number of adults of working age with poor literacy. There should be higher targets for poor numeracy.
The target will be to reach 90 per cent literacy for all adults in 2010 (80 per cent now) and 70 per cent numeracy (60 per cent now). There will inevitably be some who do not wish to improve, which is why there will never be a 100 per cent success rate.
"Ambition needs to be balanced with realism. We have years of under-education to cope with, when standards failed to keep pace with changing requirements and demands, with low expectation becoming all too engrained. If these targets can be achieved by 2010, England will be close to where Sweden is today on literacy."
What is available
"We have been struck, indeed shocked, by the patchiness - almost a random patchiness - of what is available." Basic courses depend too much on whether a college or adult education service thinks they are it is important. "Often this comes down to whether the head of the institution is keen." What exists is often on the margins of other education and training. Many students in college who require support in basic skills are never offered it.
Teaching staff frequently had no relevant qualification, and too many staff were part-time. A lack of career opportunities meant that it remained an unattractive option for many. "The best trained teachers in our education system are teaching enthusiastic young children at key stage 1. Those with least opportunities for professional development, and with most job insecurity, are teaching adults who have often failed at school and need intensive help."
Many employers think that improving standards of literacy and numeracy is a matter for schools. That is right, "but it in no way lessens their responsibility in helping today's adults. Nor have the plethora of qualifications and inadequate and confusing standards in the past encouraged employer involvement."
Employers need to be convinced that improving employees' skills would reduce waste, improve productivity and lessen staff turnover. There should be a government-funded scheme to cover the wage cost of release for one day a week for 13 weeks.
A workplace basic skills development fund would provide seed funding for companies to set up programmes at work or the local college. Unions should work with the TUC to train "learning representatives" to work with firms.
Currently, pound;280 million a year is spent on basic skills for people over 19. The FEFC funds approximately 250,000 learners at a cost of about pound;750 each. The flow of successful learners has to increase by more than six-fold to achieve the targets. "The total cost of achieving the targets would also have to be six times as high at present - more than pound;1,100m."
But the report admits this is unrealistic. It says there must be a more efficient system, cutting the failure rates of learners (from the present level of two-thirds), and more independent learning, particularly through the University for Industry.
An estimated pound;680m would be needed by 20056.
There should be a curriculum which makes clear the skills that should be learned and taught.
Students should be able to undertake simple tasks such as: find a supplier in a directory; draw a map with instructions to help find the toilets; design an accident report form; identify and classify jobs from advertisements; and find a selection of books in a library. There are too many qualifications available in literacy and numeracy for adults - for example, the FEFC funds 60.
The council and other funding bodies should recognise those qualifications based on the new curriculum.
Adults should have the option of taking the new national literacy and numeracy tests when they are ready. In due course the University for Industry might provide the tests on-line.
MOSER'S KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
* National basic skills strategy for adults.
* Government to commit itself to the virtual elimination of illiteracy and in numeracy.
* Government to set specific basic skills targets for the next five and ten years.
* High-profile campaign to be devised by a new adult basic skills promotion task force.
* Confidential assessments of adults' basic skills, and free access to study.
* Basic skills courses to be offered to New Deal clients.
* Benefit claimants to be entitled to basic skills assessment.
* Workplace basic skills development fund to provide seed funding for companies.
* Government to finance day release for up to 13 weeks.
* Training for basic skills at work funded on par with college courses.
* A "pledge" scheme for companies to show support for raising basic skills.
* Unions to provide basic skills programmes for their members.
University for Industry
* The University for Industry to commission multimedia basic skills products.
* A requirement of FEFC funding that providers assess all appropriate students enrolling and offer additional support.
* Infant and primary schools in educationally deprived areas to have family literacy and numer-acy programmes by 2002.
* By 2002 all basic skills programmes required to meet new standards to qualify for funding.
* Common framework inspection to be devised.
* New qualifications for teachers of basic skills.
* New basic skills curriculum.
* New national literacy test and national numeracy test.
* Technical implementation committee to estimate costs.
* FEFC, TECs and others to modify funding to encourage more basic skills teaching.
* DFEE to ensure systematic monitoring of the strategy.