EDUCATION and Employment Secretary David Blunkett this week blamed the nation's literacy and numeracy problems squarely on the last Conservative government and pledged a large rise in spending on basic skills to tackle the "disturbing" legacy.
Speaking to the Labour conference in Brighton, he said it was a scandal that seven million adults could not read or do basic maths.
"When we came into office at the end of the 20th century we had to start creating a literate and numerate society. After nearly 20 years of Conservative government we had people in this country who did not know the difference between paedophile and paediatrician.
"The greatest challenge we have in this area of skilling for adult life is where people can hardly read a bus timetable or the headline in a newspaper. It is a scandal that should have been dealt with years ago." Announcing a pound;150 million rise in spending on basic skills over the next three years - up from pound;253m for 2000-1 to pound;403m in 2003-4 - he said: "This will give those men and women a chance, a first chance, never mind a second chance, of engaging with the world of learning and to help themselves and their families.
"Lifelong learning isn't just a slogan - it is about equipping people to cope with the enormity of rapid change around us. That is why we are spending 10 per cent extra in real terms on further education this year." He sad the Government's literacy crusade would operate by developing a network of 6,000 learning centres, training more teachers, more money for books and a new basic skills curriculum.
Last month Canterbury College principal Sue Pember was appointed head of the new Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit which will develop ways of dealing with the problem.
Mr Blunkett said many with basic skills problems had their life chances blighted. "That was the legacy of poor teaching of the basics which our literacy and numeracy strategies are now beginning to put right. Those who didn't gain these skills haven't succeeded at work as well as they might." But he said the New Deal - which has helped more than 230,000 young people into jobs - was assisting those who had been failed by the system.
In a riposte to school chief inspector Chris Woodhead's recent comments on A-levels, he said: "Let's have no more nonsense that says if my child achieves excellence then things are fine but if your child achieves excellence then standards are dropping."
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, said: "We welcome funding for basic skills. We have waited a long time for a government to make solving our adult basic skills problem a top priority. What we need is a radical strategy that makes sure those who benefited so little from education in the past get high-quality opportunties."