Swedish model shows success doesn't come cheap
Claus Moser's report, with its headline finding that 7 million adults in the UK lack basic skills, and the work that followed, persuaded the Treasury to release unprecedented sums of money, and Labour promised to achieve targets for strengthening basic skills for 700,000 adults.
Yet, while experienced literacy and numeracy workers have welcomed the extra attention and funding, they have expressed some hesitations over the targets and some of the detailed measures proposed.
Take the headline numbers. The 7 million figure derives from the International Adult Literacy Survey - undertaken in the mid-1990s. France famously dropped out half-way through, apparently disquieted at its poor performance.
From the beginning, the survey's methodology was questioned, but its impact cannot be denied. In countries such as the UK, which did poorly with 23 per cent of adults having difficulties, this was, perhaps, unsurprising.
But in Sweden, which came top by a long way, with just 7 per cent of adults having difficulties, a new measure was introduced, offering an entitlement to everyone without school-leaving qualifications to a year's full-time study on full pay, with the state picking up the bill.
At a UK-Sweden conference I attended, the Swedish education minister explained that the issue was a civil rights concern. "If the survey had shown there was only a thousand, a hundred or just 10 adults needing help, it would be just as much a priority," he explained.
Now, the debate about the IALS numbers has flared up again. Tom Sticht, the American literacy expert, suggests in the Washington Post that the American survey may have got the numbers wrong, and there might be only half as many people with literacy and numeracy problems as it suggested. Ensuing debate in our press shows it clearly depends where you draw the line, and what constitutes basic skills. Mary Hamilton and her colleagues at Lancaster University have shown how people have different levels of competence in different contexts. And as you aggregate up for the population as a whole from the number of young people leaving education without qualifications you quickly arrive at 6.5m to7m.
None of this removes the imperative for Treasury funding. Even if the overall numbers were revised downwards, millions would still need high-quality education in literacy, numeracy, and the other skills underpinning broad-based national targets. And, as the Swedish strategy suggests, success does not come cheap.
Far too much basic skills work in the UK is limited to two or four hours a week. To make substantial progress needs allowing more time. We knew this 25 years ago when the Manpower Services Commission funded up to 36 weeks' Training Opportunities Scheme courses. They worked. Learners prospered, and had significantly different life chances at the end of it. Then the MSC confused throughput with output; courses were shortened, and their success compromised. In time they were dropped.
Tests, too, have limitations. They risk leading us to separate off literacy and numeracy from the contexts in which they are applied, and it is learning, not scores, that really matter.
One final concern with the strategy is the risk that we hold the victims responsible for the system's failings. The proposal to withhold benefit from people choosing not to strengthen their basic skills surely derives from authoritarian social policy that has no place here. Literacy and numeracy are rights, not obligations. Where the state has failed to secure them for its citizens, the onus must be on the Government, through encouragement, support and incentives to persuade people to try again.
Alan Tuckett is is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.