Can it really be true that there are 7 million people who cannot write a shopping list or get on the right bus? Official definitions of literacy and numeracy are at best misleading, at worst nonsense.
Like all enterprises to improve education and training, they never started out that way.
The Government's basic skills inquiry under Sir Claus Moser in 1999 and figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggested need for urgent action.
But the whole thing has got out of proportion. Ask most government officials in the basic skills business and they will admit off the record that the problem has been hyped. Few, however, will call for a radical rethink.
If there really is a basic skills crisis up to level 2 (equivalent to GCSE grades A-C) then this suggests that 83 per cent of the population is in need of urgent help. As Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, says on page 2: "If that's the case, we really have got a problem."
However, he is at best deeply sceptical.
In Northern Ireland, the Department for Education and Learning has scrapped the approach broadly modelled on that of England and concentrated resources where it says need is greatest - getting rid of key skills at level 1 and 2.
This in itself could prove a step too far, and care will have to be taken not to cut off much-needed resources from those in the grey area between skills levels. But, then, this begs a further question of just how efficient the five levels are in gauging need.
And then there is the growing jargon mountain: key skills, essential skills, basic skills, illiteracy, functional literacy, literacy learning problems.
Research by the Learning Skills Development Agency this week suggests that those with the greatest basic skills needs are getting the poorest share of resources. Other research by the agency (page 2) also suggests that in employment they are getting the wrong sort of courses.
The coming spending round for colleges and other training providers is going to be tough, as Julian Gravatt of the Association of Colleges points out (page 16).
Maybe it is time for England to take a similarly bold decision to that taken by Northern Ireland. The DfES is watching the province closely, but will it do so quick enough to take necessary action?