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Thousands face the music on skill levels

The UK launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning takes place in Edinburgh next week. Ian Nash reports on the international drive to improve literacy levels. Clare Jenkins looks at two acclaimed schemes

Thousands of people are to be interviewed in a state-of-the-nation survey of adult literacy and numeracy in Britain.

The study, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, coincides with the UK launch next week of the European Year of Lifelong Learning.

And it comes just two months after the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada revealed that one in five graduates in some of the world's richest countries had only the most basic levels of literacy.

Official statistics from the Government and the Basic Skills Agency show that more than six million adults in the UK - 10 per cent of the population - have problems with basic reading.

Between 4,000 to 5,000 people aged 16 to 60 are now to be randomly selected and interviewed by the Office of Population and Census Studies to determine how the UK fares against Europe, Canada and the United States.

Interviews will take place in their homes between now and April and will follow the seven measures of writing and speech used by the OECD and Statistics Canada for their seven-country survey.

A DFEE spokesman said the findings would be used to form Government policy on adult literacy and numeracy. Its findings will not be published before next year.

In the OECD survey Sweden swept the board at all levels. In basic reading alone, 42 per cent of the Swedish population hit the top grade. In Poland, only 7.5 per cent made it. The rest of Europe clustered around the 20 per cent mark.

France alone refused to publish its data, alarmed at apparently appallingly low levels. Had Jacques Delors still been president of the European Commission the figures would surely have been published. It was his alarm at the scale of problems throughout the continent that sparked his White Paper Growth, Competitiveness and Employment for the EC which led to declaring 1996 the European Year of Lifelong Learning.

More than 300 grants have been given for initiatives to promote adult literacy and numeracy, raise the profile of adult education and motivate people to take part.

It is also planned to promote the two big European education and training programmes - Leonardo, which encourages vocational training, and Socrates, which promotes education initiatives.

With a Europe-wide budget of 6 million ecus (Pounds 5.3 million), the awards are very thinly spread. There were 383 bids from organisations in England and Wales when the first Pounds 100,000 grant was announced. This was later upped by Pounds 300,000.

But Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education which is processing the bids, said: "It is not necessarily the size of the award that counts.

"It is the motivation and greater awareness generated that matters."

* The conference at which EU Commissioner Edith Cresson launches the European Year of Lifelong Learning in the UK will take place at the Edinburgh International Centre on Thursday. The Times Supplements will be among the sponsors.

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