Ignorance of the literate

4th March 2005 at 00:00
A couple of months ago I gave a lecture at London university. I was flattered by the invitation but a bit daunted because the better part of 15 years have passed since I could claim to be a practising academic.

The 800 words I write for FE Focus are all very well, but 8,000 or so of closely-reasoned argument, with enough life in it to keep an audience awake for 50 minutes, are quite another.

Worse still was the subject: adult literacy and numeracy.

These are important issues for the Adult Learning Inspectorate, but I make no claim to being anything other than an interested observer, a commentator on behalf of my expert colleagues.

Two heavyweight American professors had given the first two talks in the series. One dealt with the "moonlight schools" of Kentucky and their contribution to emancipation and democracy; the other with the adult lives of illiterate school-leavers from Portland, Oregon. There was no chance that we would overlap, but there were boundless opportunities for me to show a certain lack of contact with the sharp end.

So I thought it might be worthwhile to take another look at what has happened since Moser reported in 1999. Do you remember Moser's tests for low literacy and numeracy? There was some mental arithmetic with which I won't embarrass you. There was also the ability to find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. (For this alone we should be grateful to Lord Moser.

The present boom in training for plumbers began as soon as we realised that nobody could find a plumber in the Yellow Pages.) But what began to worry me was the obsession which everyone seemed to have with literacy and numeracy as economic issues.

There was some sterling stuff from the London School of Economics about costs and benefits.

For the expenditure of pound;3.7 billion over six years on Skills for Life, we might expect a return of pound;3bn every year. For each person helped at a cost of pound;2,000 or so, the return to them would be about pound;4,500. Great news, if you're wondering why you should smack a Gremlin.

There was some frankly depressing and extraordinarily negative stuff from representatives of industry. I found a quote from a manager at a salad packing plant. He said: "I can justify pound;100,000 off the bottom line to finance literacy and numeracy training. By not putting the wrong sell-by date on a run of 30,000 bags of salad, I'm saving pound;5,000-aday from not keeping the shift behind to rebag it."

A luminary of the industrial cleaning trade listed the benefits to it of improving literacy and numeracy, as follows.

"Saving on cleaning agents; increased life of cleaning machines and equipment; fewer mistakes and misunderstandings; greater client satisfaction and retention of contracts; lower staff turnover; saving of employers' liability insurance."

Makes the heart sing, eh? His punch line was that many cleaning businesses regard "mopping as a basic skill". Ho, ho.

All this smacked of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times giving girl number 20, Sissy Jupe, a hard time for being unable to define a horse as a gramnivorous quadruped.

I found it hard to find much connection between the policy debate and the things people who become literate or mumerate actually say to Ali inspectors: "I feel much more confident now." "It's really useful to be able to help my children."

There was a bit of a clue in Moser's statement that poor literacy and numeracy "has come about, above all, from poor schooling". It's all the fault of those trendy nutters in the Sixties.

Well, if you plough through the statistics long enough, it seems it isn't. I found some wonderful government figures showing there was precious little difference between 16-year-olds and and 65- year-olds when it comes to the proportion who have poor literacy and numeracy. OK, 55 to 65-yearold women who left school in the mid-1960s are not so good on the sums, but the lowest performers of all are 16 to 24-year-old men.

Why? Well, for that, you have to look at the figures produced for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Our nine-year-olds and our 15-year-olds are not at all bad at the three Rs, on average.

But the clue is in that little phrase "on average". We do well by most kids but we leave a long tail of underachievers.

So there I was with the same old message: if we want to raise standards in this country we need to do more and more for the least able, for the speakers of other languages, for the immigrants.

It's the flipside of what we like to celebrate, a flexible economy; one in which people move about and become those horribly derided "economic migrants". And we need to regard all those people with fullness of heart, and generosity.

We also need to see them as being, as the OECD puts it, "on a continuum" rather than failing to reach some arbitrary threshold.

It's us who have a problem. Not them.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

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