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'Dismal' England lags behind as Scotland investigates basic skills

As Scotland gets down to investigating the true extent of its adult literacy and numeracy problems, Westminster's leading committee of MPs has painted a "dismal picture" of basic skills in England - despite Pounds 5 billion having been spent over six years on improving adults' reading, writing and maths.

The House of Commons public accounts committee said that, even if the Government meets its ambition of 95 per cent functional literacy and numeracy among adults by 2020, England will only have caught up to the standard of the top 25 per cent of countries today.

Edward Leigh, the committee chairman, said: "This is a dismal picture, both for the many who face diminished prospects in what they can achieve in life and for the competitiveness of our country in the world economy."

The committee said ministers should order a repeat of the 2003 Skills for Life survey to find out what effect the money spent between 2001 and 2007 has had, something they have now agreed to do next year.

The committee noted that the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills in Whitehall acknowledged more work needed to be done on numeracy, following an earlier focus on reading and writing.

Graduates of maths-related courses should be targeted for recruitment in order to redress the balance of 6,300 numeracy teachers compared with 9,100 in literacy, the committee proposed.

Take-up of Skills for Life within the free, employer-based Train to Gain scheme had been lower than expected, with just 41,000 enrolments compared to an expected 73,470.

The Government did meet its target to improve the basic skills of 2.25 million adults more than two years early, however. In six years, 5.7 million adults took 12 million courses, with 7.6 million leading to approved qualifications.

Sion Simon, the further education minister in England, commented: "No government has done more to tackle the nation's literacy and numeracy skills, despite the scale of the challenge being so large and historic."

He said an extra Pounds 3.9 billion has been allocated to Skills for Life up to 2011.

The Scottish Government has launched a national survey on literacy and numeracy, which will assess 2,500 people and issue its initial findings in the autumn.

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