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Plus ca change on illiteracy

In your report "Conscription plan to combat illiteracy" (TES, March 1) you refer to the concern felt by many here in France that too many people do not possess the basic skills required for a modern society. Our education ministry has published the findings of surveys in this area, and as head of the ministry office for assessment and forecasting, I have been instrumental in launching such surveys and in disseminating the result.

Hence I find it somewhat disturbing that the article says that France has withdrawn from the International Adult Literacy Survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, because its results compared very unfavourably with those of other countries. This implies bad faith, lack of fair play and a desire on our part to suppress information.

Further, a figure of 40 per cent of functional illiterates among the French population is quoted.

It is quite true that France did decide to withdraw from the survey, not because we have 40 per cent illiterates according to the definition used in the study - can you seriously credit the fact that nearly one person in two in France is incapable of reading a bus timetable? - but rather because the comparability of results between countries could not be guaranteed.

Independent inquiries clearly showed that differing ways of conducting the survey introduced bias. The impact of this on the results could not be accounted for. Needless to say the main organisations responsible for the survey internationally have been trying to play this down at the same time as making sure that France's withdrawal was interpreted as cheating rather than as the result of weaknesses in the survey.

You may rest assured that I for one will continue to measure the extent of the phenomenon and publish findings so that appropriate remedial action can be taken.

CLAUDE THELOT Ministry of education, higher education and research 142 rue du Bac Paris

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