Ten years and #163;9bn later and still 5 million can't read

16th September 2011 at 01:00
A costly campaign to improve adults' basic skills has fallen short

In 2001, a new #163;9 billion programme to improve adult basic skills in England was hailed as a world-leading investment in literacy. What followed was one of the highest profile campaigns of its kind ever undertaken - it was impossible to miss the marketing and the advertisements.

A decade on, the results of an inquiry by adult education body Niace published last week found the Skills for Life programme was not wholly successful. In fact, it failed to reach many of the people most in need of improving their reading and writing.

The 12-month inquiry culminated in Niace's report, Work, Society and Lifelong Literacy, which assessed progress since the Moser report that inspired the programme in 2001. Its judgment? Too many resources were directed to people with the fewest literacy problems; the Government needs to encourage demand for better skills among those who struggle to read and write; and family learning could be the key to greater improvements.

The Moser report called for the Government to halve the number of people - seven million - who could not read and write competently in daily life and work. It gave examples of tasks such as finding a plumber in the phone book. But the new inquiry said the number had fallen by only two million after a decade of investment. "At least five million of our adult citizens are missing out because they do not have an adequate standard of literacy," said inquiry chairman Lord Boswell.

The target was missed, the report explains, partly because Skills for Life was driven by raising qualification levels, leading to the recruitment of those who could most easily get qualified. There were too few enrolments on the lower-level courses for people with the greatest obstacles to reading. And many of the higher-level courses were accrediting people whose literacy was already acceptable but who lacked the certificate to prove it.

But the inquiry recognised that many of those with the greatest problems with literacy were the least likely to demand classes. Qualifications were a poor motivator: of 35 learners who reported to the inquiry, only one said their motivation was to gain a qualification. Marketing campaigns, TV advertisements and celebrity champions are suggested to stoke demand. Previous campaigns - which featured people struggling with the gremlins of poor skills - focused on the opportunity to get on in work.

The inquiry also pinpointed another, more powerful motivation, which is particularly important at a time when employment is uncertain even for the highly qualified.

"The biggest benefits people look for in terms of why they want to raise their skill levels are not about employment," according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust. "Parenting is the strongest reason that people return to education and improve their skills. It's a personal motivation: if you want to be a better mum, then by reading a little better you can make a huge difference."

So as well as recommending improvements to teacher training and professional development, the inquiry proposes a new emphasis on family learning, suggesting that every primary school should establish programmes to help parents improve their literacy. This would also address some of the problems of literacy in schools, which risks adding to the number of adults who struggle to read and write each year.

"Certainly, a major part of the problem goes back to past schooling," opined Lord Moser in the original report. Lord Boswell's inquiry took a different tack: "Schools alone cannot address the multiple disadvantages faced by many families. The problems of intergenerational transfer of low literacy are well documented, but working with adults and their children in family literacy programmes has demonstrated success."

Mr Douglas agrees, pointing out that the major influence on performance in school up until 16 was parental involvement: so literacy for parents and children had to be addressed together.

However, he warned against assuming that there will not be a need for a similar inquiry another decade down the line. "Ten years is really just scratching the surface. We are talking about something which, to be sustainable, needs an all-party consensus for decades."

Literacy facts

- One in six people of working age lacks the literacy skills to function effectively in modern society.

- The North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and London have the largest numbers of people with literacy problems.

- One-third of those in higher managerial or professional jobs did not achieve GCSE-level literacy skills.

- 48 per cent of prisoners have literacy skills at or below level 1, equivalent to a D or below at GCSE.

- Research last year found that 4,800 literacy teachers lack subject-specific training and it is expected to take four years before the whole workforce is qualified.

- A new survey of basic skills is due to publish headline findings later this year, along with a Government review of literacy and numeracy provision.

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