The man from the Pru - champion of the illiterate

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Why should Peter Davis, a leader of industry stick his neck out for people who can't read? Why should he bother to press the case for the independent Basic Skills Agency with harassed government ministers? He talks to Elaine Carlton.

To the wider world he is the man from the Pru but within education Sir Peter Davis is the man from the Basic Skills Agency, negotiating with Government ministers, advising on policy and chairing the board.

The relationship began eight years ago, when Sir Peter was chief executive of Reed publishing group and Kenneth Baker was the Secretary of State for Education. Reed wanted to get involved in charitable work which was key to its business, and literacy was the ideal target. Meanwhile the BSA (then called ALBSU, the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit) was looking for a new chairman and Sir Peter stepped into the role. Last week he was appoointed chairman of the Government's Welfare to Work task force charged with taking 250,000 young people off the dole.

Over the years the focus of the agency, originally adult literacy, has broadened enormously and now includes everyone from toddlers to pensioners. Sir Peter helped to spearhead the agency's campaign to broaden its remit, in April 1995. He pushed hard with the Government, particularly schools minister Lady Blatch and John Patten, the Education Secretary, on the BSA's behalf urging them to listen to the agency's view.

"I really believe that you cannot confine the issue of literacy to adults, " he said, speaking in his plush office at the Pru's Chancery Lane headquarters. "In America, research was carried out which revealed that if a mother has inadequate literacy skills then there is little chance of her child having good literacy skills."

How could she teach her child to do something she could not do? "We have to be holistic about literacy. We have to look at parents and their children, at nursery schools, primaries, secondaries and adult life. We can't just stop and look at one stage of the cycle."

To their credit, he said, the ministers listened to the agency's pleas, but often negotiations were tough. "It is not always comfortable being chairman because the agency is very focused and sometimes ministers have other priorities. I sometimes feel I am the interface between Government and agency. I argue on the agency's behalf but I also have to explain to them how difficult it must be for a government minister who is faced with 20 priorities but can only agree to focus on 12. What happens to the other eight?" Literacy and numeracy skills are crucial for people at any age, according to Sir Peter. "They are vital skills to allowing Britain to produce a trained and skilled workforce," he said.

"People tend to think of literacy first and numeracy later but both are vital. People need to read just as they need to be able to do basic sums to work out what their mortgage is costing. Lots of people struggle with that."

The beauty of the Basic Skills Agency lies in its enthusiasm to keep the issue of literacy and numeracy on the agenda, said Sir Peter. "It's a very small agency but its has a huge influence. It reminds academics, local education authorities and Governments that the problem is still there. It has not been solved. It is an activist, it promotes good practice and it stimulates. "

Governments do not always like its independence. Although funded by the Government, it had an independent board, which was, in his view, very important.

Much of Sir Peter's work for the BSA - which is entirely a personal role and does not draw in the Prudential's business links schemes - involves presenting certificates to people who have tackled literacy late in their lives and succeeded. He finds this a very inspiring experience. "Adults who have problems with communication and come back to tackle them later on in life are very brave. I have presented certificates to old ladies of 81 and I find it very moving."

He is also a supporter of the agency's family literacy programme. The BSA has targeted four deprived areas where children have problems with reading and writing and asked their parents to come and work alongside them,meanwhile improving their own skills. A lot of parents didn't do well at school so many of the projects are not carried out in school situations, which is important for their motivation. Many adults in their thirties and forties who have never had reading or writing skills are now overcoming their difficulties."

As for the future and the new Labour Government, the BSA is unsure of its position. "Tony Blair has mentioned to me on several occasions that he feels the work the BSA does is extremely important. I know he wants to give education a high priority and he is committed to making the facilities available to encourage literacy and numeracy, but we don't know how he is going to do this.

"What the BSA wants is a continuing commitment from the Government to its area of work and to raising standards of literacy and numeracy and the BSA wants to remain the prime agency tackling the problem."

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