In 2001, the Scottish Executive published Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland, which quantified the scale of the problem. The ALNIS report revealed that approximately 800,000 adults, an astonishing one in five in Scotland, had low literacy and numeracy skills. It also revealed that 500,000 of these adults were in employment.
Last year, the Scottish Government's New Light on Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland report revealed that 39 per cent of men and 36 per cent of women have literacy abilities at a level that is likely to impact on employment opportunities and their life chances. For numeracy, the figures are 65 per cent of men and 77 per cent of women, which is breathtaking - it represents three-quarters of women in Scotland.
The STUC bid successfully for funding of a Pathfinder Project under the previous Scottish Executive which, for the first time, provided support to people with literacy and numeracy needs who were in employment. Historically, funding had only been available for those not in work, principally through community-based learning.
Although that doesn't sound like a big deal, it was: there were many professionals, politicians and officials who thought community-based learning should continue to be the only approach to dealing with these issues. And we had employers who thought it was a matter for schools and nothing to do with them. So the Pathfinder approach was something of a breakthrough.
When it first began, it was mostly learners with "rusty" skills we were dealing with. For example, those who had left school 20 years or so before and hadn't been involved in any training or education since. They wanted to brush up on skills they once had, and learn new ones. As well as the "rusty" skills learners, we are trying to find suitable provision for migrant workers who need English language provision, and learners with dyslexia and other learning difficulties and disabilities.
But there is much to be resolved. Funding is always a problem. The responsibility for providing adult literacies support resides with the 32 local authority Community Learning Adult Literacy Partnerships (reflecting the bias in favour of community-based provision). This structure is not serving workplace literacies well. It is unsuitable for those involved in workplace provision - due partly to the length of time it can take to establish delivery programmes, when union learning reps have to get employers involved and providers identified.
The case for a dedicated fund for workplace everyday skills provision is unanswerable. In addition, workplace everyday skills support requires long-term investment, but funding for providers and practitioners is short-term. This temporary basis of funding limits the opportunity for the long-term development of a coherent workplace literacies and numeracy strategy.
Provision for workplace literacies has been patchy, and the concordat between central and local government works against a coherent, consistent approach across Scotland. But if changes to the funding and provision of adult literacies are not made, we will be unable to support learners who need our help most. We will make no more than a dent in the numbers of people with literacy and numeracy issues, which is holding them and the economy back and undermining social cohesion.
As the recession bites, training has never been more important, which is why we must ensure that investment in skills continues. And we need a focus on everyday skills. We know from evidence and experience that it is those with the fewest skills and qualifications who are first to lose their jobs in a downturn and find it hardest to get a new job and to keep it for any length of time.
I am sceptical that the training and skills infrastructure we have, and the policy framework and funding arrangements, are up to dealing with the recession we face. While we need to retain focus on the long term, future prospects could be critically undermined if the appropriate action is not taken to deal with the immediate consequences of this recession.
The UK and Scottish governments have taken steps to (help) those facing redundancy or the unemployed. The money available through colleges, the support to enable apprentices made redundant to complete their training and the wage subsidy measures are all important - as is ensuring that everyday skills funding and provision is enhanced.
UNION ACTION ON LEARNING
ASLEF, with First Scotrail, has organised Earn as You Learn and Brush up your Skills courses, delivered by Stow College, which tackle issues such as form-filling, household finances and dealing with correspondence.
Literacy, numeracy and ICT skills have been delivered jointly by an everyday skills tutor and a deaf signer to UNITE learners in two Remploy sites, also by Stow College.
UNISON has organised everyday skills courses for home carers, day centre workers and health workers, delivered by the WEA in the Highlands and Islands.
The Glasgow Adult Literacies Partnership has developed a pilot course in areas such as letter writing and minute taking.
Unions have been working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority to develop training for union learning reps on the SQA skills check, the alerting tool which will enable them to identify learners' needs.
Classes in English as a second language have been delivered to eastern European workers at Firstbus and to postal workers in Edinburgh, as well as shift-friendly literacy and numeracy drop-in sessions in bus depots.
The bakers' union (BFAWU) has been the leading union in supporting members with dyslexia.