It was a privilege to be asked to Chair the Literacy Commission and, along
with my colleagues, to produce a report and series of recommendations that
we believe can help to address the low levels of avoidable illiteracy that still
exist in Scotland today.
From the outset, the Commission has operated on an independent and
impartial basis using its own, limited resources. The findings that we have
produced are not intended to support the aims and objectives of any individual
political party or organisation and, it is with this in mind, that we offer our
report to Scottish society as a whole.
Literacy is a massive topic that covers not just the traditional skills of reading
and writing but other literacy skill sets, such as emotional and financial
literacy. Poor literacy affects not just school children; it also affects adults and
those with learning difficulties. The Commission considered these different
aspects and decided from the outset to focus its work on those children who
have the capacity to learn and develop their literacy skills but who are
currently failing to do so.
For the past 18 months, the Commission has reviewed evidence from a
variety of individuals and organisations with first hand experience of dealing
with the problem of poor literacy, and considered very closely the factors that
can contribute to this. Our report sets out eleven clear recommendations that
we believe can address the problem of poor basic literacy and, if adopted by
Scottish society, will place us in the enviable position of being the developed
world's first fully literate nation.
The membership of the Commission was drawn from a cross-section of
Scottish society and includes respected figures from the worlds of academe,
business, politics, culture and education. (For more information on members
of the Commission, please see the end of the Report.) It is sufficient here to
say that the insights, experiences and thought-provoking debate that this mix
of people produced greatly enhanced the Commission's work and I am very
grateful for the time and effort each of my Commission colleagues has
devoted to this project.
Introduction: The Vision - Zero Tolerance of Illiteracy
The introduction sets out the vision for the report - zero-tolerance of illiteracy -
and sets out the problems currently facing Scotland.
This report sets out a vision which would give Scotland a position of world
leadership: zero tolerance of illiteracy. For years in Scotland, as in other
nations across the world, we have tolerated the intolerable. We have
accepted a situation in which thousands of our young people leave school
every year with correctable problems that leave them functionally illiterate -
that is, without the basic literacy skills to function in a modern society.
The Commission was set up in response to concerns about the persistence of
very low levels of literacy among a significant minority of Scottish school
leavers. From the outset the Commission acknowledged that there is a very
small number of children for whom basic literacy is an unachievable objective
because of physiological factors or severe learning difficulties. The focus of
this report is not on these problems, important as they are, but on the issue of
low achievement among those youngsters at school for whom there is no
apparent barrier to acquiring adequate literacy skills.
The consequence of this failure is shown in the number of adults in Scotland
without such skills. The available evidence suggests the total may be
approaching a million. Not only does this represent a vast economic cost to
our society, it also constitutes an unacceptable social cost in terms of quality
of life and well-being, the more so as the steps that are required to ensure
that every young person becomes literate prior to leaving school are already
established in research and practice. But, the vision cannot be fulfilled
nationally unless there is total commitment to a zero tolerance policy and the
actions necessary to achieve this.
However, this is only the starting point because, although acquisition of the
basic skills of literacy is absolutely essential, it is not a sufficient definition of a
fully literate nation.
The Scope of the Problem
This section highlights the problems currently faced in the UK through the use
of statistical evidence and compares this with evidence from abroad.
There is no nationalofficial measure of how many children are going through
the school system without acquiring basic literacy skills but, using what
information is available, a good estimate would be that in Scotland 18.5%
leave primary school without being functionally literate - some 13,000
youngsters a year at current population levels. However, there is
considerable local variation with a range of between 10% and 26% correlating
to different levels of socio-economic disadvantage.
Primary and early secondary national test scores are another source of
evidence and, whilst these are not immune to question, when aggregated to
local authority level, some significance can be attached to them. In relation to
both reading and writing, the proportion of children failing to achieve the
expected standards, as defined in the 5 - 14 programme, varies enormously.
For example, by the age of 14, the percentage of children not achieving level
E in reading in 2008 exceeded 20% in two authorities, ranged between 10%
and 19% in six others, and was reported as 0% in 14 authorities, although it
is not clear what this "0%" means. Figures relating to writing were less
satisfactory. Only in 3 areas were all children said to have achieved the
expected standard while, in 2 areas, half the children did not and, in a further
6, at least 30% fell below the expected level.
Levels of success in national tests broadly follow socio-economic factors with
poorer areas faring badly, although a small number of partial exceptions is
evident. However, many youngsters do not overcome their lack of literacy
skill in secondary school and, taking the more objective SQA performance of
general educational success as an indicator of literacy standards, then
exceptions disappear and achievement follows social circumstances to an
There are no official national statistics on literacy levels for secondary school
leavers, and those that exist are hard to interpret, but an indication of the
scale and impact of the problem across the United Kingdom can be found in
statistics on adult literacy presented by the National Literacy Trust1. In
England, the 2003 "Skills for Life" survey found that 5.2 million adults (or 16%
of the 16-65 population) had literacy levels at or below `Entry Level 3', the
standard expected of an 11 year old child. The figure for Wales was higher at
25%. No comparable figures are given for Scotland; however a 2001 report
by the Scottish Executive indicated that 23% of the adult population may have
low literacy and numeracy skills.
The Commission was interested to know how reading standards in Scotland
compare with other countries but found this surprisingly difficult to establish.
There is no answer that can be regarded as truly authoritative.
There are currently two major international surveys that cover standards in
literacy - Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and
Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Both have the
merit of being repeated at regular intervals but the findings are open to
question, with the tests more attuned to the cultures of some countries than
others. However, these international comparisons do give valuable
information and at least an indication of standards of performance.
Whilst Scotland did well in both the 2000 and 2003 PISA studies, Scottish
performance in the 2006 study was less encouraging and was not much
above the average (499 points against an average of 492). Five countries
(Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea and New Zealand) did better and a further
14 (including England) performed at much the same level.
The PIRLS study showed a similar decline; in 2006 Scotland was ranked 26th
out of 45, compared with 14th in the previous study. The international
evidence, despite problems of interpretation arising from the definition of
literacy and the attainment measures used, does not support the idea that
Scotland is a world leader. Furthermore, there is a worrying suggestion in
both PISA and PIRLS that other countries may be progressing faster than
The Impact of Poor Literacy
This section sets out the impact of poor literacy on individuals and society,
drawing upon the findings of a CBI report into the impact of low readingwriting
Poor literacy levels matter because they have an impact both on individuals
and on society. A very powerful report by the National Literacy Trust
(September 2008), which pulls together existing research about the
relationship between literacy and five areas of life: economic status,
aspirations, family life, health and civiccultural engagement, highlights not
just the impact of socio-economic factors on low literacy levels but also how
those low literacy levels, in turn, affect life chances and further exclude people
from participating in society2.
The scope and seriousness of these problems is indicated further by figures
from the Office of National Statistics which show that in the 50-65 age group,
31% of males and 40% of females have a literacy standard normally achieved
by the end of early primary years. Moreover, a Scottish Executive report in
2001 found that some 800,000 adults, of whom 500,000 were in work, had
significant literacy problems, whilst a subsequent report in 20083 revealed that
39% of men and 36% of women of working age had literacy abilities at a level
that was likely to impact on their employment and life chances.
The view from employers is shown in a CBI survey on the impact of
illiteracypoor readingwriting skills in the work place4. This gave evidence
(see below) that the major concern about literacy, shared by 72% of
respondents, was the quality of written English - constructing properly spelt
sentences with accurate grammar. Moreover, this concern applied to
graduates as well as to school leavers.
Leading areas of concern.
Area of concern % of respondents
Constructing properly spelt,
grammatically correct writing
More complex literacy tasks 46
Understanding oral communication
and articulating a clear response
Reading and understanding basic
It is clear that many of the concerns identified relate to higher levels of skill
than basic decoding. This accords with the Commission's opinion that literacy
is a continuum with significant points relating to key skill levels at different
stages along it. This view does not minimise the importance of ensuring that
all children attain basic literacy skills as timeously as possible, but it does
mean that they should not be left at this level. It is a purpose of education to
move youngsters as far along the continuum as possible.
Defining Basic Literacy
This section defines a level of `basic literacy' for the purposes of the report,
bearing in mind that there is no official definition of literacy and recognising
that the simple process of decoding is insufficient by itself.
The Commission spent some time discussing what constituted a basic level of
literacy and what this enabled someone to do. Although the Scottish
Government is keen to emphasise that literacy is central to Curriculum for
Excellence (CfE) and that every teacher is to become a teacher of literacy,
there is no official definition. In 2008, in answer to a Parliamentary Question,
the Minister for Schools and Skills confirmed that "The Scottish Government
does not have a definition of functional literacy".
In fact, literacy is a very complex concept, involving, at a more advanced
level, a range of higher order skills such as critical thinking, creative writing,
appraising style or detecting bias, and this complex view - that literacy is a
continuum, covering advanced skills as well as basic - is the one laid out in
the CfE Experiences and Outcomes. At its most basic level, literacy crucially
involves competence in readingdecoding (defined as the process of deriving
meaning from systematised graphic shapes) and in writing. The realisation
that text conveys meaning is itself an important skill and one that only has to
be learnt once. However, basic skills of decoding and writing are, on their
own, not sufficient to enable someone to function in adult society and the
Commission felt that it was this ability (to function in an adult society) that
should be used to define "basic literacy". In West Dunbartonshire, the age
standard identified as delivering this was 9 years 6 months which is illustrated
in the reading example below.
Text of Level 4 reading passage
Jan buckled on her diving belt of metal weights and dropped from the launch.
Skipper Kells supervised her air-hose to prevent tangling. Leo, following the
bubbles, guided the dinghy above the diver as she searched the mysterious
Jan surfaced frequently, clutching crayfish. The required number of
specimens was almost obtained when the grey nurse shark advanced directly
towards her. Jan retreated cautiously without signalling for assistance. The
creature brushed by, ignoring her, as baby sharks emerged from some rocky
grooves. Their welfare was more important to the shark than the diver's now
motionless figure. 5
Anyone mastering this stage should be able to read the passage aloud,
following its meaning with few errors in accuracy. It equates to a midpoint
between levels C and D in the 5-14 programme and the beginning of stage 2
in Curriculum for Excellence. It provides an adequate level of literacy to start
engaging with the secondary school curriculum, complete a basic form, read a
tabloid newspaper and function at a basic level in society; it is an important
staging post on the literacy continuum. However, it would not allow a
youngster to complete the secondary curriculum or function at a higher level
in society and should not be regarded as the end point. (For comparable
examples of writing, see footnote 6.)
Social and Economic Disadvantage
These paragraphs define socio-economic disadvantage as the most important
cause of correctable poor literacy and describes the negative effects that this
has on the life chances and achievement of children.
In order to find an appropriate solution to the problem of poor literacy levels, it
is necessary to look at causes. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that,
whilst other factors have a modest impact, the most important cause of
correctable poor literacy is socio-economic disadvantage. Figures given
earlier in the report show that, whether the measure used is National Test
scores or the more objective SQA results, children in less affluent areas tend
to be less successful. While individuals may defy this trend, no school in a
deprived neighbourhood is able to record a similar level of success to that
achieved by almost all schools in the most affluent areas. It is evident that
socio-economic circumstances continue to outweigh other factors such as
quality of teaching, a point made forcibly by the OECD 2007 report Quality
and Equity of Schooling in Scotland - "Not all schools work equally well in
Scotland. But the gaps between them are far less important than differences
between students. In Scotland, who you are is far more important than what
school you attend".
Material disadvantage can have a simple and direct effect on educational
opportunity. Housing is more likely to be crowded with no quiet place for
study. Families are often unable to afford the trips and other experiences that
enrich the developing mind. Lack of money can be an important factor in
deciding whether a child has to leave school at 16 or is able to continue
further. However, less obvious effects of socio-economic circumstances are
even more influential and, as is now widely recognised, cumulative. The
same groups suffer from poorer health, less adequate housing, exposure to
crime and violence and lower chances of educational success. These
disadvantages are not merely correlated, they are causally related. The Chief
Medical Officer for Scotland, Dr. Harry Burns, has recently presented
research which offers persuasive arguments that a child's whole
circumstances affect life-chances in a way that is generally decisive.
Medical evidence suggests that disadvantage has a physiological impact on
the human body that not only makes children more liable to disease and early
death but also inhibits their brain development and makes them less able to
learn. It is widely recognised that children who experience chaotic family
circumstances or who do not receive the appropriate responses to cries of
discomfort or smiles of happiness experience problems in their development.
If these are not redressed early, they may have lasting consequences
because the first few years of a child's life are when many key stages in brain
development happen. Such children are not only likely to make a poor start in
education but also rapidly fall further behind. Moreover, the disadvantage is
generally long-lasting, impairing their capacity to make progress at later
Disadvantage in this extreme form is illustrated by evidence from Glasgow. In
one P67 class, 21 out of 24 children had faced severe problems in their lives
including drugalcohol abuse by a parent, family death and violence. More
generally, some children arrive at nursery at the age of three or even four with
barely any language and poorly developed social and motor skills. It is selfevident
that such children lack the prior experiences that would equip them to
A particularly vulnerable group are children looked after by local authorities,
both in children's homes and in their own homes. The overall number has
doubled in most local authorities over the past four years, largely because of
social problems such as parental drugalcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Often, the focus on education takes second place to their more immediate
social and behavioural needs. Many, through no fault of their own, have
become disengaged from mainstream schooling, suffer from complex needs
and are well known to a variety of different support services, such as social
However, the effects of disadvantage are more widespread than even these
examples might suggest. The statistical evidence cited earlier indicates
clearly that, even if children have supportive and loving families, socioeconomic
disadvantage will severely reduce their likelihood of success.
The reasons for this have received less attention than they merit. However, it
seems clear that the awareness of living at a low point in a social hierarchy is
itself very damaging. It is liable to reduce self-esteem, morale and motivation.
Meanwhile, being excluded from the culture and discourse of more privileged
groups may reduce competence in activities that are socially and
educationally valued. There is again medical evidence that such exclusion
increases stress and precipitates a number of potentially damaging
Furthermore, so pervasive is the effect of disadvantage that it tends to
subsume other factors. In recent years girls have out-performed boys in most
aspects of school work (although not in later success in life). Theories have
been developed indicating that sedentary literacy-based activities better suit
girls' preferred styles of learning. Although there is truth in such views, it is
even more significant that changes in society have left traditional male manual
employment highly marginalised. The result is a merging of gender-related
factors with the more powerful issue of disadvantage. Such a view is
supported by a variety of evidence, including from the Clackmannanshire
project (see Page 13 et seq), that gender differences can be substantially
reduced or even eliminated by well-conceived and systematic policies
combined with sound teaching.
Experiences of the Past
This section points out that there has been no `golden age' of literacy and to
exemplify this draws on the school experiences of adults presently engaged in
adult literacy schemes.
There is no evidence to suggest that there has ever been some literacy
"golden age" and figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal higher
levels of poor literacy among the 50-65 age group than the 16-24 age group.
The Commission itself considered evidence from adults who were
participating in adult literacy and numeracy schemes. Personal reflections by
this group identified the following as impediments to learning:-
?Missing school - often because of problems at home - resulted in learning
gaps that were hard to make up. Youngsters then lost confidence in their
ability to learn.
?Learning difficulties that were not identified early enough
?A lack of appropriate and sustained help as and when it was needed
?Their own behaviour e.g. being easily distracted andor truanting
?Parents who did not push them to learnstay on task
?A learning-support curriculum that did not match the classroom curriculum
?Confidence undermined by being removed from the class (and separated
from friends) for learning-support.
It is noteworthy that this group identified personal failure - either their own or
others in terms of the lack of support they received - as the cause of their
problem and appeared to be largely unaware of systemic problems arising
from their social and economic circumstances.
English as an Additional Language (EAL)
This section does not claim EAL to be a factor in poor literacy but identifies
findings from a report on EAL teaching that identified the issues associated
with helping children with poorly-developed English language skills and the
importance of wider community support.
The Commission took time to consider English as an Additional Language
(EAL). It is not itself a factor in poor literacy - indeed a number of Glasgow
schools with a high percentage of asylum seeker or recently arrived children
for whom English is not their first language are out-performing other local
schools. However, a report on EAL teaching provided some very instructive
insight into both the problems of helping youngsters with poorly-developed
English language skills and the importance of community support.
It is clear that the concept of decoding is a bit like riding a bike - once a
youngster has learnt that reading a written script is possible, this awareness
can be transferred from language to language even when the "graphic
shapes" used are quite different e.g. from Chinese to English.
It is necessary for someone to have language to think in before they can read.
In the EAL setting this means that it is more important for parents to develop a
child's use of their own language than teach himher English, if the parents'
own English language is limited. Moreover, there is a need to overcome
potential difficulties arising from a mismatch between the cultures of the
learners (whether EAL or those from socio-economically disadvantaged
areas) and the education they receive.
The Role of Testing
This section identifies the Commission's view on testing as having two
purposes; to certify student progress and to identify struggling schoolchildren.
The Commission considered the current focus on testing for literacy and a
proposal within Curriculum for Excellence that all youngsters should acquire a
formal qualification, establishing their literacy level, in their third year of
secondary school. For its part, the Commission recognised the value and use
of testing and saw it as having two particular purposes - certification and
diagnosis. Testing highlights the importance of the area to be tested - in this
case, literacy. It gives evidence of standards to employers and those in more
advanced levels of education. It provides baseline data which are useful for
establishing what is happening in Scotland and for showing how achievement
has changed over time. It is also important as a means of holding those
responsible for education to account for what they deliver.
However, the Commission sees that a central purpose of testing is to provide
diagnostic information about students who are struggling, and for working out
what steps should be taken to help them progress. The methodology and
timing of such tests are crucial for identifying the scale of literacy difficulties.
Such tests do not have to be applied to all youngsters but can be used in an
increasingly focused way to help those who have been identified as having
Improving Literacy - the Evidence
i) Addressing the Consequences of Social and Economic Disadvantage
At this point, the report identifies the need to begin addressing socioeconomic
disadvantage from an early-age and also draws on evidence from