Crusade to solve Welsh equation

Steve Hook on drastic action to improve poor numeracy and literacy levels

A BASIC skills qualification will be launched as part of a cradle-to-grave assault on the shockingly low levels of literacy and numeracy in Wales.

Teachers will be trained to deliver a new basic skills curriculum for people over the age of 16, to increase their employment prospects.

The plan is being drawn up by the Basic Skills Agency, which has just published figures revealing Welsh adult literacy numeracy standards are lower than in England.

The agency says the Government must pay for post-16 teachers to attend three-day courses on teaching basic skills in Wales, stressing that similar money has already been made available in England.

The agency says the new qualification will have more credibility than the array of existing ones, which it describes as "meaningless to employers".

The agency's survey found 28 per cent of adults in Wales have poor literacy levels, compared with 24 per cent in England.

Thirty-two per cent have poor levels of numeracy, compared with 24 per cent in England.

New figures also show one in five people in the UK is functionally illiterate and one in four cannot add up.

The skills deficit is particularly critical in Wales, where traditional sources of low-skilled work have been been replaced with new and often high-tech industries.

"Far too many adults have such poor skills that they can only get and keep low-skilled jobs - the very jobs which are disappearing fast in Wales," said Allan Wells, the BSA's director.

"There's a strong link between poor basic skills, poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion.

"We need action now if we are going to avoid producing a set of similarly shocking figures in 2010 and in every decade after."

The agency has warned that more resources must be ploughed into Welsh education if standards are to improve.

A spokesman for the agency said: "Education poviders are adamant that the problem cannot be addressed within the current resources.

"Not only is there the cost of targeting new and more challenging groups of new learners but there are concerns that the quality and rigour of existing provision is variable and the curriculum available to learners varies from place to place.

"Also, a radical programme of staff development is needed."

The survey, conducted for the agency by Opinion Research Business, involved 4,300 people.

The numeracy tests included interpreting a train timetable, choosing a bank for a loan, using cash, and taking information from graphs.

The literacy tests included reading and understanding a newspaper article, and reading a medicine bottle and a recipe for comprehension.

The skills black spot of Wales was identified as the Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney constituency, in the south, where more than a third of the population have poor literacy and numeracy skills.

The survey was carried out from 1996 to 1999, involving people aged 16 to 60, all of them at least partly educated in the UK.

Later this year, the agency publishes a CD-Rom showing the levels of need in basic skills in each local authority ward in Wales.

Other action is intended to include:

Taking joined-up approaches in areas where there are problems of unemployment, poverty, poor housing and bad health,

Encouraging parents to help children, particularly those aged up to three, with basic skills,

Devising methods to target young people at risk of disaffection and disengagement from the mainstream of education, training and work.

Exploring how business can contribute to increasing basic skills,

A high-profile publicity campaign to raise awareness of basic skills and emphasis their importance, with role-models drawn from sports and entertainment,

New research into levels of literacy in the Welsh language, to be carried out later this year.

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