The size of the task facing Education Secretary Estelle Morris was revealed this week with the publication of a report putting the UK second from bottom in an international league table of adult literacy.
Education at a Glance, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, says that of 14 countries only the United States fares worse than Britain.
Ms Morris described the findings as "quite frightening". One of her key tasks is to improve literacy skills among adults. Last year, the National Skills Taskforce reported that there were seven million functionally illiterate adults in Britain. Labour responded with a manifesto pledge that 750,00 adults would receive basic skills training in the next three years.
According to the Department for Education and Skills, the number of people attending basic skills classes has risen from the 250,000 quoted by the OECD for 1998 to 400,000 in 2000-1. The OECD table was based on the findings of the International Adult Literacy Study, conducted between 1994 and 1998. The report says that continuing education and training "tends to reinforce skill differences resulting from unequal participation in initial education".
However, there was also good news for Ms Morris. A higher proportion in Britain now gain degrees than in any other developed nation.