'We can't go around with people who can't read or write'
While it is traditional when launching an inquiry or commissioning a hefty report to seek out the gravitas of a lord, these grandees can lack the perspective of the front-line teacher.
But when Lord Boswell of Aynho, who is chairing a new inquiry into literacy for the adult education body Niace, is looking for expert testimony, he will not have to look much further than the other end of the breakfast table: his wife, Helen, taught literacy classes for several years.
It was a perspective that he says made him an advocate of adult education when he was junior minister for FE and HE from 1992 to 1995.
"I was responsible, broadly speaking, for the whole post-compulsory sector," he says. "At the department, some of the grander officials said I seemed to be quite interested in adult education. Well, my wife taught literacy classes, so there was a family involvement.
"My wife almost used to have a trade in mid-20s mothers who suddenly realised after giving birth quite young that when their kids were in school, they couldn't communicate with their teachers, or help them with homework.
"So the view that I had was always that post-compulsory education isn't just universities and is for everybody, and that voluntary participation, even when it was not necessarily a nationally sanctioned qualification- bearing course, is worth doing - which is still my view."
The education system should not just be for high fliers, he says: "Given that I'm a Tory, that may surprise you." A farmer's son, still living on the family farm in Oxfordshire, he describes himself as a One Nation Tory and distances himself from "saloon bar" views of education.
The new inquiry he will chair comes more than 10 years after the Moser report revealed that seven million adults in the UK could not read well enough to look up a number in the Yellow Pages, and will examine the progress since then.
"We know there is a problem, we have identified the size of the problem, and it led the way for Skills for Life (the last government's adult basic skills programme) - I'm not setting out to rubbish all that," says the 67- year-old, who retired as an MP at the last election. "It's about what we have done since, with the resources we have used, and what we do next."
Investment in adult basic skills was not recorded separately then, but it is probably safe to say that it had not reached the pound;1 billion-a-year of Skills for Life at its height. Government targets were met early and the sheer volume of work - 12 million courses taken by about six million students - was impressive.
But a Niace "report card" assessment last year suggested that Skills for Life succeeded most with those who only needed a relatively small amount of help to bring their reading and writing up to functional levels. Many of those who needed the most help were still not receiving it.
Lord Boswell says that not only is it a great undertaking to measure the changes in literacy, but they are faced with a moving target as more and more jobs require greater degrees of proficiency.
"The bar for literacy is rising all the time," he says. "Just filling out forms, for disabled living allowance or tax credits, is always getting more complex.
"There is a greater premium on literacy in all walks of life - for the high-flier middle-class type, but also in traditional manual-type activities. People's social relationships, how they manage their lives, tax affairs, possibly benefits - it's going to be more complicated, it's ever more important."
There may also be a bigger gap than ever opening up between the highly literate and the least literate, if US evidence is any guide. The Stanford Study of Writing looked into the literacy of students at the elite university between 2000 and 2006, when it was sometimes said that new technology was harming young people's ability to write coherently. Instead, it found them more likely to write outside the classroom than any previous generation, whether it was blogging or emailing, and noted the sophistication of their work.
Similarly, the National Literacy Trust said technology-based materials were the most commonly read by children, and those who used technology, by keeping a blog for example, were more likely to report that they enjoyed writing.
The Moser report found that Britain was among the worst performers in literacy, with 23 per cent of adults below the level achieved by most 11- year-olds, and beating only Poland and Ireland in a comparison of western countries. By contrast, the best performer, Sweden, claimed just 7 per cent failing to meet the same standard.
Research in 2003 updated the numbers thought to lack functional literacy to 5.2 million, down from the figure of seven million measured in 1997 and used in Moser's report.
The Government has set itself a target that by 2020, 95 per cent of adults should have reached the functional skills standard of an average 11-year- old.
It has not yet repeated the 2003 survey to comprehensively assess the impact of the billions spent on Skills for Life, a situation which is likely to be complicated by the numbers of migrants who may or may not speak English.
But going by the estimates of progress made by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, meeting the 2020 target would mean repeating the eight percentage points progress made over the past decade, at a cost which approaches pound;9 billion, including work on numeracy.
Unfortunately, it is increasingly unlikely that there will be another pound;9 billion, as Lord Boswell acknowledges, saying his inquiry will have to look at the contribution of voluntary organisations.
"All of this has to come off the back of a society where there is not going to be any additional resources," he says. "I don't think the Government or anyone would thank us for saying this is an opportunity to throw money at the problem."
Lord Boswell says he wants to carry out some work on international comparisons, suggesting that stereotypes and a lack of reliable information sometimes get in the way of a realistic assessment of Britain's performance against its competitors.
He recalls visiting a youth club in Bonn to be confronted with a large group of Neets (young people who are not in education, employment or training), often thought to be a British phenomenon rather than a feature of Germany's much-vaunted vocational education system. "It's sometimes less well admitted than it might be," Lord Boswell says.
"The problem is, if you talk to a Korean about the adult literacy problem, they say, `We haven't got one.' Children are taught in classes of 55, learning complicated characters - and there's no literacy problem?"
Notwithstanding that the coalition Government has not accepted the entirety of Lord Leitch's agenda for world-class skills in the UK, Lord Boswell says that the economic argument for better literacy is important. Job roles are becoming more complex even in manual work, and employees are expected to take on tasks alone that in the past might have been carried out by a team, which means they cannot rely on help if they need to read instructions.
But he also stresses the social gains of greater literacy. "It's about empowerment: financially, democratically and for people to be able to play their full part in society," he says. "It's a moral issue as well: we can't go around with people who can't read or write, it's a significant impairment of our national life. People with low attainment are less empowered. I want a more empowered society."
He says he is interested in investigating how particular crisis points at the transition from school to work or further education could be the cause of literacy problems for some.
"We do want to look at transitions: it's always when something happens and then something happens on top," he says. "There's a bereavement in the family and someone is about to go from school to college and they end up missing a lot of their education."
Lord Boswell also says he wants to examine participation by minorities, as well as the role of Neets.
Inquiries tend to beget inquiries, but Lord Boswell says he is alive to the danger of creating an "industry" of self-examination, rather than making inroads into the millions of adults who need to read and write more fluently.
"It would be a mistake to create an industry which we then have to feed," he says. "But I think it's unrealistic to say, possibly like some South American dictator, that we will have abolished illiteracy within 10 years. We need to get material progress."
The committee membership was not quite finalised as Lord Boswell spoke to FE Focus, nearly two weeks before the inquiry launch, with the chairman wanting representation from unions, among others, whom he describes as "major players" in improving the literacy of workers.
The inquiry is expected to hold five or six evidence sessions and produce a prelimary report in spring next year. Its final report will be in 12 months.
"It's not a Royal Commission that's going to take eight years, or waste eight years, to use the usual phrase," he says. "But it will keep us busy for 12 months."
A DECADE OF SKILLS FOR LIFE
pound;5bn was invested in Skills for Life between 2001 and 2008. By 2011, the Commons public accounts committee estimates it will reach pound;9 billion.
Spending on Skills for Life will exceed pound;1 billion for 200910. Three- quarters of that was targeted at adults over 19, with a large emphasis on numeracy.
5.7m adult learners have taken up 12 million Skills for Life courses (including English for speakers of other languages). The target to improve the literacy, language and numeracy skills of 2.25 million adults by 2010 was met two years early, in June 2008.
2.8m adults have gained a first qualification counting towards Government targets.
541,500 adults gained literacy, language or numeracy qualifications in 200708.
There is a target of 597,000 literacy qualifications to be achieved between 2008 and 2011, and 390,000 numeracy qualifications to be achieved over the same period.
18,800 teachers work full-time on Skills for Life. About 6,000 teach numeracy, 8,000 teach literacy and 9,000 teach ESOL, full- and part-time.