A major study* issued by HMIE this week found that the very different and complex starting points of learners, together with the lack of good formative assessment tools, made it very difficult to provide evidence of how much impact they were having. There were signs of good progress, but these tended to be founded on learners' satisfaction with their programmes and the impact it has had on their lives.
The last estimate of the extent of the problem, in the 2001 Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland report, suggested that 800,000 adult Scots (23 per cent) had low levels of these skills. Since then, over 180,000 learners had received support and the inspectorate's report is an attempt to evaluate how well that has been done, in colleges, community learning and development (CLD) and prisons.
But the report admits there is no national data to show how many of those 800,000 had achieved "functional literacy". The Scottish Government, one of whose performance indicators is to "reduce the number of working-age people with severe literacy and numeracy problems", is to report on literacy and numeracy in the spring. HMIE hopes this will provide a fresh baseline against which to measure future progress.
Meantime, the best the inspectors have been able to gauge is that most learners on CLD courses had reached levels 3 and 4 of the national qualifications framework (Standard grades Foundation and General). But that was based on informal and anecdotal evidence provided by staff and field visits by inspectors.
In colleges, almost all literacy programmes led to progression of various kinds. But it is slow: those with no or very low literacy skills (barely at Access level) took an average of two years to achieve enough confidence and improvements in their literacy to be able to learn on their own. In most cases, they were able to reach Standard grade GeneralIntermediate 1, before moving on to mainstream courses.
In prisons, the problem was poor connections beyond the gates: with literacy workers in colleges and CLD, which resulted in "missed opportunities for learners", and with other prisons when inmates were transferred. In addition, information about the initial literacy levels of offenders was unreliable (TESS last week).
The inspectors now hope the new literacy qualifications, to be introduced from 2012-13 at SCQF levels 3, 4 and 5, should go "some way" towards enabling all literacy programme providers accreditation.
Graham Donaldson, head of the inspectorate, commended the progress of learners and commitment of staff, but called for better planning and partnership working, improved assessment, more effective use of ICT, better recognition of achievement and pathways to connect to new learning.
Colleges came out best in terms of the quality of their services for improving literacy, the access they provided, their learning and teaching, resources, learners' achievements and quality improvement.
The report noted the very diverse needs of learners: those whose poor command of literacy held them back in their work, those whose schooling was interrupted and had to catch up and those who suffered medical trauma but could previously read and write well. Matching provision to these very different needs was "an important feature of quality provision", the inspectors stated.
Their report also includes a toolkit for providers of adult literacy programmes - "What does it look like when it works well?"
- Download the full "Improving Adult Literacy in Scotland" PDF report on the right hand side