An adult literacy industry is the last thing we need

28th October 2005 at 01:00
It's good to read, isn't it? To be able to open The TES Scotland, skim the paper and then go back to read in more detail anything that catches your eye. It is one of the benefits of living in a civilised society, is it not - to read anything and everything we wish, read for any purpose, to learn, to enjoy, to survive.

In fact, this ability to read is one of the major marks of a civilised society. And it is surely right that this ability be shared across everyone in society. That is certainly a view underpinning the Executive's universal literacy strategy, with some pound;51 million pledged over the next five years.

Certainly, the money will help with the industrialisation of the literacies business, developing new strategies and approaches along with new products and new jobs, both skilled and unskilled. We have veritable armies of workers: developers, analysts, administrators, teachers, tutors, lecturers, report writers, volunteer workers.

It's maybe not the NHS, but it sure is a growth industry aimed at helping the estimated 800,000 (yes - 800,000) Scots needing help with writing, reading and numeracy.

It's all very worthy, but is it worth it? You really have to ask a lot of questions, mainly of the "why" variety - why, why, why and why again? Why do so many adults need help? If the target is to get 150,000 new learners by next March, what a shocking indictment of the statutory education system. Where was the system when these people were going through school?

Why not put the pound;51 million into teaching basic survival literacies early in life? Would intervention at an earlier age not help grown people to cope better with life?

Why, if there is such a desperate need, is there such a reliance on willing but perhaps unskilled voluntary tutors? Would the money not be better spent in paying properly trained people to deal with the apparent crisis?

And why does no one in Government have the guts to have a real go at the school system? If education were a real industry, turning out such a high proportion of products unable to operate and compete in the real world, it would go to the wall.

Simple. The yells can be heard already: "We do not turn out products. We deal with people. Education is about the whole person."

Aye, right. Maybe we should stop being precious and start really admitting that education has to answer to its paymasters. If the schools can't turn out a literate and numerate population after at least 11 years of very expensive education, what are we paying for?

There is a lot of political concern about the number of people leaving school without qualifications. Stuff the qualifications. What can be a better qualification than being able to read a grocery tin? Or being able to understand and check a supermarket receipt?

So, please don't let us repeat the mistakes which led to the whole issue of adult illiteracy. Let's put commitment, money and expertise into the early stages. And while we are at it, let's sack the teachers and others who cannot deliver adults capable of looking after themselves.

And let's get rid of the adult literacies industry: possibly the only industry we really don't want to keep.

Jim Kennedy is a consultant in adult literacy.

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