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.