Vast underclass in literacy ghetto

11th February 2000 at 00:00

WRITING A love letter or reading a story to a child are beyond the capability of nearly a quarter of the inhabitants of the world's richest countries.

These 16 to 65-year-old "functional illiterates" cannot understand brochures, train timetables, road maps and simple instructions for household appliances, an Education for All conference in Europe and North America heard this week.

Such people, often unable to write out a cheque, are petrified by the prospect of changes such as the arrival of the Euro or new technologies, delegates were told at the conference in Warsaw organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and other UN agencies.

Although many completed school, they have either lost or never properly acquired reading and writing skills.

About 22 per cent of the population in England and Wales is functionally illiterate, compared to 25 per cent in Ireland and 20 per cent in France, according to research by several countries which forms the basis of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study on 16 to 65-year olds, to be released in June.

Functional illiteracy appears to be highest in the United States and Canada and lowest in Sweden. It is not necessarily confined to recent immigrants.

The inability to function is more evident as society becomes more competitive and callenging, says Veronique Esperandieu of Le Groupe Permanent de Lutte Contre Illettrisme, set up with the French government to combat the problem in France.

The Basic Skills Agency has a similar role in Britain, but some countries, such as Germany, barely recognise the seriousness of functional illiteracy.

"What was adequate to function in society before is no longer adequate today," says Ms Esperandieu.

The industrial society required fewer skills than today's information and technology age.

"Now, even a cleaner has to know how to read instructions on solvents, and factory workers need to know how to input data into computers," she says.

A recent English study showed that 60 per cent of the poorest readers at age 10 had parents who were functionally illiterate - a key to reversing learning disabilities in children. Poor reading is also considered the easiest of poverty indicators to tackle. Unemployed people who retrain in basic skills find jobs sooner than those who do not.

Nonetheless, international organisations regard this vast underclass in Europe and North America as an indictment of the primary-school system in rich countries.

Measures to combat illiteracy will be discussed at a conference in Dakar, Senegal, in April when governments review the decade since the Education for All conference held in 1990 in Jomtien, Thailand.

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