When the crunch comes

13th April 2007 at 01:00
The Big Plus addresses adult literacy issues

WE'VE ALL seen the adverts on television: a father unable - and therefore appearing unwilling - to help his wee boy with his sums; a shop worker trying to hide her panic when asked to price goods on a supermarket shelf; or a boyfriend not being able to select "their song" on a jukebox.

Based on real cases, these adverts illustrate crunch moments when the individual realises the need to address literacy issues - crunch moments which reveal their problem to themselves andor others.

Part of The Big Plus awareness campaign, launched in 2004, the adverts are intended to help watching adults to recognise their own behaviour in similar circumstances. Almost half of the 60-second slots are taken up with explaining the informality of the support on offer, using language to normalise the problem and the solution. They talk about "brushing up your skills" rather than literacy problems, and stress that one in five adults has occasional problems with words or numbers.

More than 16,000 calls have been received by learndirect scot-land since the campaign was launched and, when the adverts are on-air, call levels increase almost three times. Funded by Learning Connections and joint-branded with learndirect scotland, which provides marketing and support to pass on calls to local authority adult literacies partnerships, the Big Plus campaign is clearly making successful inroads into what, nevertheless, remains a significant problem.

There are around 800,000 adults in Scotland with problems ranging from not being able to divide to not being able to write their own name; and of these, around 300,000 are either not aware of their problem or choose not to recognise it.

Choosing not to recognise the problem results in a whole range of coping strategies like avoiding promotion at work (or even resigning); depending on a partner, child, community worker or friend; using excuses like losing your glasses or having a sore hand (going as far as having it bandaged) and always dealing in cash to avoid using cheque books and bank statements.

Crunch moments can arise slowly or suddenly through work (promotion, redundancy, change in working practices, compulsory training), family (becoming a parent, having to help with homework, a break-up where you now have to cope with bills for the first time) or through a health crisis, sitting a driving test or even playing darts or other sports which require keeping scores.

In Falkirk, Mary Johnston's initial learning goal was to be able to write her Christmas cards. "I can remember the woman who walked into class with her head bowed and would not make eye contact," says James Tate, tutor.

"She's gone. The Mary who comes to class now walks in smiling, head held high and a spring in her step. Best of all, from Mary's point of view, is the interest her family has taken in her learning.

"She's been writing her life story and, going home after class, would often find her grandchildren waiting for the next instalment."

Mary says she is no longer frightened to write letters and finds she can speak to people in authority: "I can speak up for myself. I feel I am just as good as anyone else. Before coming into the Big Plus, I thought I was nothing, but I AM SOMETHING.

"I'm going to learn about computers now. I want more education," she says.

Part of the Big Plus strategy is its libraries programme, a partnership between Learning Connec-tions and the Scottish Library and Information Council which aims to promote adult literacy and numeracy opportunities in local libraries.

It has been running for 18 months and a recent report shows that over 3,100 learners have been going to events run by 16 local authorities. These events have introduced potential learners to libraries, while 100,000 books have been purchased to support new adult learners - there were more than 170,000 issues of these books in the first six months alone.

Around 70 members of library staff have been trained in how to support adult learners, with a strong focus on family learning.

In East Dunbartonshire, a six-week programme called Growing Readers was run by library staff, which offered information and advice to parents and carers of children aged four to seven on how to create enthusiastic and committed young readers. It highlighted the importance of the parents' role as their children's greatest support.

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