A new survey from the government's Basic Skills Agency has revealed that for the estimated one in six people who have trouble with numeracy and literacy, geography is everything.
For example, in the inner city areas with the highest level of need, Tower Hamlets, Barking and Dagenham, Newham in London and Knowsley in Merseyside almost a quarter of the population had very low literacy levels. In the leafier lanes of Cambridgeshire, Wokingham and Hart in Hampshire, less than 10 per cent of people had low literacy skills, which is well below the estimated national average of 15%.
However, Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the Basic Skills Agency called the findings a "scandal for a rich, civilised country" and commented : "I hope the 'good' authorities don't think they can assume they don't have a problem. Even in Hart the 9% taken nationally would be four million people."
The survey of 8,000 16 to 60-year-old adults is the first ever to provide benchmark information on the scale of adult literacy and numeracy need in different areas of England. Respondents were asked a series of questions and teasers designed not to test academic ability, but everyday usage of reading, spelling and maths.
Alan Wells, the agency's director, said: "Many people with low skills are stigmatised, embarrassed, lack confidence and are fearful of educational institutions.
"A great worry is the inter-generational effect. If you don't have the confidence to help your children with basic skills they may well end up having the same difficulties at school you did.
"People develop all kinds of strategies to hide their lack of skills, from pretending they've forgotton their glasses so they don't have to read, to the extreme of one man I knew who would never be alone with a telephone in case it rang and he had to write down a message."
Perhaps the most shocking finding of the survey were the low levels of national numeracy. Even in the areas with the lowest level of need, Richmond upon Thames, Hart, Wokingham and City of London, around 20 per cent of the populace were found to have low skills. In poorer areas of high need, Knowsley, Corby, Leicester and Liverpool, the figures rose to almost half the population.
Sir Claus said: "It's a peculiarly British phenomena. There is no other country in which people are almost proud of their lack of numeracy. Let's have a Year of Sums after the Year of Reading."
However, Alan Wells said he was not unduly concerned by the numeracy scores. He said: "It is easy to get by with relatively weak numeracy skills. My personal view is that poor literacy has a more dramatic impact and is the greatest excluder."
He said that even to read numerical information such as a graph or bank chart a person would need to have literacy skills before they could begin to understand the numbers.
The agency have produced a CD-Rom providing information on the scale of need in every ward in England, which will be available from the beginning of April. Mr Wells said: "For the first time, bodies like LEAs, government offices, TECs and colleges will have reliable baseline measurements from which to plan and target basic skills provison.
"Along with the Government's proposed Adult Learning Fund, this research could lay the foundations for a significant improvement in the basic skills of our adult population in time for the new millenium." That meant, he said, that less people would be "marooned as the parade went by".