David Budge on a survey of literacy in some of the world's richest countries.
One in five graduates in some of the world's richest countries has only the most basic levels of literacy.
A seven-country survey has found that many graduates could not identify the time of the last bus on a Saturday night using a timetable. Some could not work out how much more energy a country produces than it consumes by comparing figures on two bar charts, and others failed a third test that simply required them to state which of a set of four reviews was the least favourable.
In the United States, Switzerland (German-speaking) and Poland more than 20 per cent of graduates could not carry out these relatively easy tasks. In Sweden, Switzerland (French-speaking), Canada and the Netherlands the tests tripped up 15 per cent or less of graduates.
Very few of Germany's graduates did so badly in the tests, but Sweden and Canada nevertheless appear to have the highest proportions of highly literate graduates. Sixty-one per cent of Swedish graduates and 48 per cent of Canadian graduates were rated as highly literate, being placed in the top two bands of a five-level scale (the graduates with only basic literacy were in the bottom two levels).
The survey, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada, is the first to probe how well people in different countries perform reading tasks that are relevant to their daily lives and jobs. Although the United Kingdom was not involved in this study the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is preparing to mount an identical investigation next spring. The UK survey will involve between 4,000 and 5,000 people aged 16 to 64 and the results will be published in the spring of 1997 along with figures for Belgium, New Zealand and Australia.
The OECD study, which covered between 1,500 and 4,000 people in each country (20,700 in total), found that the percentage of adults in the bottom literacy band ranged from 6 to 45 per cent (Sweden and Poland respectively). People in this band were between four and 12 times as likely to be unemployed as those who were highly literate. In every country some less-educated people were found to have high levels of literacy but the proportion of adults in this category also varied considerably from one country to another.
The survey also confirmed that there is real substance to the "use it, or lose it" slogan that many adult educationists have adopted. The report states: "People are, on average, more literate if they use their ability to read and work with numbers at work and in their daily lives. The clear message to employers and governments is that measures to improve adult literacy will be most effective if they are part of a wider effort to increase day-to-day use of reading and writing."
However, one obstacle that literacy drives have to overcome is adults' refusal to accept that they have a problem. "In some countries a majority of adults with the lowest levels of literacy did not consider that reading skills limited their job opportunities at all," the report says.
Literacy, economy and society. Results of the first international adult literacy survey, OECD and Statistics Canada, is available from HMSO, price Pounds 26.