Escaping disadvantage: literacy and numeracy

International statistics on literacy in various countries around the world contain a curiosity: almost any country in the western hemisphere you’ve ever visited or even thought about has an adult literacy rate of 99 per cent. The reason for this is that most developed countries no longer collect data for literacy, and therefore an assumption is made that in all these countries 99 pr cent of adults are literate. Whether this is really true is another matter. It depends to some extent, of course, on how you define literacy.

In fact, we know that an appreciable number of young adults leave school in these countries with what one might regard as basic reading and writing skills, but without full functioning literacy. They will struggle with anything more complex than elementary tasks. When you then add numeracy the problems are even worse. In countries in which employment, or at any rate employment with even modest career prospects, depends increasingly on high skill levels, literacy and numeracy shortfalls are a serious matter.

It is an issue that, thankfully, is now receiving more government attention. In Ireland the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, last week launched a new strategy for literacy and numeracy, which will involve adjustments to teacher training and some changes to the school curriculum (particularly at the Junior Certificate stage). The Minister explained his thinking as follows:

‘This is an issue of equality. Without the skills of literacy and numeracy, a young person or adult is often denied full participation in society.  They may be condemned to poorly paid jobs or unemployment and a lifetime of poverty and exclusion.  This is why I am convinced that ensuring all our young people acquire good literacy and numeracy skills is one of the greatest contributions that we can make towards achieving equality and social justice in our country.’

Meanwhile in Scotland the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, recently told the Scottish Parliament that he would shortly be putting forward a new ‘literacy action plan’.

Inadequate literacy and numeracy at the earlier stages of education undermines higher education and, ultimately, economic progress and social equality. It is time that we stopped assuming that almost all our population is literate and numerate, and to initiate measures that will ensure that there is not just a basic awareness reading, writing and mathematics, but that people across all sections of the population display real confidence in these vital skills.

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5 Comments on “Escaping disadvantage: literacy and numeracy”

  1. Al Says:

    Tip of the hat to the Minister!

  2. Eddie Says:

    “Meanwhile in Scotland the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, recently told the Scottish Parliament that he would shortly be putting forward a new ‘literacy action plan’

    Yet another one from politicians who think that the literacy problems in early years can be fixed top down. Many initiatives in both sides of the borders have come and gone in the past. Behind every literate and numerate young kid is a parent. Teachers can only do so much. A recent series of investigations by the London Evening Standard, showed this. In England, in the last Labour government billions of pounds were poured into schools and initiatives and the results do not show much improvement. This Westminster government is doing the same. Parents have onerous responsibilities here.

  3. Vincent Says:

    What’s amazing is that this needed to be stated at all.

    • Al Says:

      A further point could be made that the claim that it puts a floor under the weakest performers fails to acknowledge that the move also takes away a ceiling from all performers.
      Young people learn how to pick up information quickly, dump it in an exam, forget it and move on. They do too much for any depth of study for the average student. This reduction will assist an increase of skills, but in saying that, will it?……

  4. kevin denny Says:

    Ferdinand, I am not sure where your stats come from. The best measure of literacy & numeracy across countries is the International Adult Literacy Survey assembled by the OECD & Stats Canada in the 1990s’, there may have been a subsequent follow. It attracted some controversy about whether it was providing comparable data (the French withdrew for example). The emphasis in these surveys is “functional literacy”: defined as being able to use information for everyday tasks. So its pretty meaningless to say that 99% (or any number) are literate.
    This survey recognised that literacy isn’t binary i.e. there are degrees of literacy. It got a lot of attention in Ireland because some people claim that it implied that a quarter of Irish adults were illiterate. This is actually a distortion of what the data say but it certainly indicated problems of low literacy.
    The data for Ireland is almost 20 years old so it would be nice to see an update: I think the numbers would be a bit better.
    Research does indeed show that it pays to have higher levels of literacy.
    We should also recognise that the basic skills needed in society change – computer literacy being the obvious example.


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