Better off north of the border
Speaking to adult literacy workers in the north of Scotland last week, Juliet Merrifield, the principal of an adult learners' centre in Brighton, said: "Over the past five years, Scotland has been developing a remarkable adult literacy and numeracy strategy, which makes it one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the world right now to be an adult literacy or numeracy practitioner."
More than 100,000 adults have improved their literacy and numeracy since 2001, according to a report last year from the Scottish Executive, which has committed pound;51 million over five years to tackle the problem. An estimated 800,000 adults in Scotland have problems with literacy and numeracy.
Dr Merrifield praised what she described as the "social practices" approach adopted in Scotland. This means rejecting the notion of a set of skills which can be applied everywhere and recognising that "different literacies" are required in school, in the home and at work.
She also commended the approach on developing people's capacities, on quality learning and on partnership approaches.
Scotland, she concluded, was building "a system that learns", based on feedback from learners as well as tutors.
Dr Merrifield said the three big challenges facing adult literacy in the western world were: what should be taught, how do we know people are learning and how can we be assured that public funds are well spent?
In terms of the curriculum, she acknowledged there was "tension between being student-centred - in which a person is learning what they want at a particular moment - and mastery-focused, which are ideas of what that person needs to know and be able to do".
In Scotland, the Executive is aiming for 150,000 new learners in literacy and numeracy by March this year.
The goal south of the border is to reduce the number of adults in England with literacy and numeracy difficulties to the levels of international competitors, which means from one in five adults to one in 10, or better.
A report soon to be published by the Commons public accounts committee of MPs will underline the scale of that challenge.
It estimates that nearly half the UK workforce, 12 million adults, has a reading age little better than children leaving primary school. An even greater number, 16 million, are struggling with numeracy at the same level.