Do we really care about illiteracy?

9th June 2000 at 01:00
ONE MILLION Scots illiterate and innumerate? A quarter of all adults? Springtime brings Adult Literacy Week with its welcome focus on individual achievement. Also attendant press speculation - conjecture without the underpinnings of actual and factual research.

There is a pointer. Only last month the CBI's latest scrutiny of the views of major Scottish businesses found continuing strong dissatisfaction with the literacy and numeracy abilities of their school-leaver recruits, and the common need for workplace remedial help.

Last month, too, came the latest OECD survey. This showed that children in England and Scotland aged between 12 and 14 receive an average of 569 and 585 hours respectively of maths and science teaching per year - somewhat below the average of countries surveyed, at 670 hours. Unpleasingly, Scotland ranked 25th out of 40 countries.

There was however something distinctly curious about Holyrood's response to the illiteracy story, and to the tabloid headlines which continued to resonate in the broadsheets for days. First, that figure of one million. It comes from 1997 UK statistics and the Scottish sample was just 700. Some might say hardly an adequate basis for national outcry and ministerial knee-jerk.

However, if you ask any community education specialist you will be told that in the absence of national basic education statistics for Scotland, the working rule of thumb is that one in five adults has some shortfall in skills preventing effective social functioning. The problem is manifest in the south, too. The Basic Skills Agency (we in Scotland don't have one) claimed a year ago that two-thirds of adults can't spell everyday words, with 16-24s the worst offenders.

Second, the timing of the story and attendant spin surrounding promised ministerial action arouses suspicion. The cynical view is thatit suited ministers pretty well to get leadership speculation, the state of the coalition and handling Section 28 swept from the headlines.

Third, Henry McLeish, the Lifelong Learning Minister, is promising to plug the hole - be it pinprick or gaping crater - with the princely sum of pound;2 million. Though better than buying a few more armchairs for MSPs' offices, this is risible tokenism if the figure of adults needing help should prove anywhere near the one million guesstimate.

Doubtless such sweetie cash will be decently siphoned into a worthy mixture of learning partnerships and enterprise training, and will as usual disappear without visible trace until the next press scare. If the Executive really means business, it should aim for a joined-up approach with action on four initial fronts.

It should instigate a statutory obligation to provide adult basic education in Scotland (as already exists in England and Wales).

It should take steps to instigate a national (annual) literacy and numeracy survey and record the findings by local authority or enterprise area. Only thus may we stop guessing and obtain hard info on the numbers of Scots who cannot read a bus timetable, follow a simple recipe, understand a job advert, or subtract pound;1.39 from pound;2.00.

The Executive should then cost and set annual targets for reducing that million figure, with progress-reporting timed for Adult Learners' Week.

Lastly, we don't need yet another task force to talk about the problem. We do need a national focus and reference point to co-ordinate action. The 1997 Skills Forum Report proposed that there should be a small, high-level and responsive National Audit Unit to co-ordinate, advise and oversee progress in what needs to be done.

We shall now see whether illiteracy really is the priority in politically correct circles.

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