The Yellow Pages syndrome;Further education

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
One in five Scots may have serious problems with literacy and numeracy, report Neil Munro and John Cairney.

THE spotlight is about to fall on adults with literacy and numeracy problems, as the Scottish Executive's social inclusion strategy slips in to yet another gear.

The Executive is expected to publish a report shortly on how it plans to tackle deficiencies in literacy, estimated to affect almost a million adults. This follows a survey of provision in further education colleges and local authorities carried out by the national development project on adult literacy, set up by the Executive last December.

The survey is expected to show that provision largely depends on where people live and that there are widely differing philosophies across the country in determining the kind of support adults receive.

Local authorities will be expected to co-ordinate "community learning plans", following the recommendations of the Osler report, and these must include targets for adult literacy and numeracy.

Around 6,500 adults currently participate in basic skills programmes in Scotland. But a conference in Glasgow last week heard that more than one in five Scots may have serious literacy and numeracy problems.

Gerry Cairns, HMI with responsibility for adult education, told the conference that 22 per cent of the adult population, the equivalent of 400,000 people, are at the lowest literacy level, and cannot cope with the simplest tasks such as searching Yellow Pages.

They are at the very bottom of a five-point scale as defined by the International Adult Literacy Survey in its 1997 study, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A half of all adults - around one million people - may be at level three or below on the OECD's measure, Mr Cairns said, and lack full proficiency in reading and writing.

The Scottish figures from the 1997 study are being treated with caution, however, since they are derived from a very small sample of 700 adults.

Mr Cairns believed the key finding was that three-quarters of those at the very bottom of the literacy table do not find it a problem because it does not affect their jobs or social lives and they do not seek out tuition. There was therefore "a latent demand".

He warned, however: "If literacy programmes are to be successful in attracting more people, we must integrate literacy into the wider social and economic agenda."

Basic skills must be seen as a tool to access jobs and enhance the quality of life, not just as an end in themselves.

Mr Cairns was backed by Catherine Macrae, co-ordinator of the adult literacy project, who called for a move away from "stigmatised learning" to programmes that are relevant to those taking part. Guidance must become more central in assessing needs and opportunities should be available for new skills to be practised.

Tuition cannot be "a stand-alone solution", Ms Macrae declared. "We need to look at how support is happening in local communities and neighbourhoods and see if we can build on that, and build the community's capacity to develop its own literacy and numeracy capabilities through informal learning and not necessarily by coming into institutions."

The OECD report defined literacy as the ability to use information to function in society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential. It was important to move away from the simple "literatenot literate dichotomy", Ms Macrae said.

She counselled against "quick fix recipes" and warned in particular against the route followed south of the border, based on testing and a national curriculum for adults. Speaking after her address, Ms Macrae said such an approach "will potentially turn adults away by giving them a negative starting point for their learning".

She added: "Testing is not conducive to adult learning and a standard curriculum moves us away from the idea that we design the learning responsively to the needs of the learner."

The conference was part of Glasgow's pound;5 million campaign to become Britain's first "learning city," which includes taking action to overcome barriers to learning. It is run by the Glasgow Development Agency with backing from the Scottish Executive and Glasgow City Council.

Stephanie Young, director of lifelong learning at the Glasgow Development Agency, said the conference had highlighted the need for literacy and numeracy to be "embedded in existing practice" and for new partnerships and networks of practitioners to be established.

The models already existed in the form of education-business partnerships and adult guidance networks, she said.

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