Stark new look at skills divide

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Report paints gloomy picture of adult literacy and numeracy. Harvey McGavin reports

NEARLY four out of 10 adults in some parts of England cannot read or write properly or do simple sums, according to a new analysis of basic skills shortages .

The findings, to be published in a report by the Basic Skills Agency, suggest that the nation's numeracy and literacy problems are worsening.

The report comes just over a year after agency chairman Sir Claus Moser's report which described the "horrendous" problem of 20 per cent of adults being "functionally illiterate". But a re-interpretation of that data puts the national average even higher, at 24 per cent - rising to nearly 40 per cent in places.

They give numeracy and literacy levels for England's 529 parliamentary constituencies. These reveal a marked north-south divide and wide disparities in ability, with pockets of relatively competent readers and writers next to areas with severe problems.

In the North-east, for example, 27.2 per cent of people fell below basic literacy levels, compared with 21.4 per cent of adults in East Anglia, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

Problems were worst in inner-city areas. The Birmingham constituency of Sparkbrook and Small Heath fared worst, with 36.4 per cent of adults defined as illiterate and 38.7 per cent innumerate. Birmingham Ladywood, Bootle in Merseyside and Liverpool Walton all had levels well above 30 per cent.

In Secretary of State David Blunkett's constituency of Sheffield Brightside, 34.7 per cent of adults were classified innumerate and 32.2 illiterate. However, nearby Sheffield Hallam had one of the lowest rates of innumeracy at 15.7 percent.

In contrast, Buckingham had the lowest combined rates of illiteracy and innumeracy at just 16.9 and 15.3 per cent. Other constituencies which did well were Wimbledon, Richmond and South Croydon in London, South Cambridgeshire and Wokingham.

More than 8,800 people across the country were tested on their ability to understand instructions, labelling for parcels, recipes and timetables, and perform simple sums. Examples included working out the change from pound;2 for shopping costing pound;1.58.

Those falling below the basic level of literacy and numeracy were put in three categories: meaning they had "borderline" or "fragile" skills or "severe" problems. Those in the last category might struggle to write out the alphabet, use a full stop at the end of a sentence, count to 10 or recognise simple shapes.

In November, Baroness Blackstone, the education and employment minister, announced a pound;16 million programme to train basic skills teachers and improve provision. This was significantly less than the pound;600m a year Sir Claus Moser said should be used to halve the number of people barely able to read or write by 2010.

The second part of her three-stage strategy to tackle the basic skills problem is due to be announced later this year.

Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, said: "MPs need to be aware and obviously concerned that substantial numbers of adults in their constituencies - even in the best constituencies - have problems with basic skills."

"We have to make an impact right across the country. To the individual it makes no difference whether they live in Tyneside or Richmond, if they have problems with basic skills they all need help."

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