Monday, June 09, 2008

Use And Abuse Of Literacy



The government routinely spends huge amounts of taxpayers' money on programmes that have little or no proven success. Moreover, when you dig into them, you often find such programmes are actually no more than an expensive sticking plaster for some more fundamental government failure elsewhere.

The adult literacy programme is a prime example.

According to last week's National Audit Office Report, the government's much-hyped Skills for Life programme is costing us about £1bn pa:


For that, we are putting millions of "functionally illiterate" and innumerate people through various courses supposedly giving them skills for life. The aim is to lift 95% of the population up to a literacy level roughly equivalent to GCSE grades D-G (so-called Level 1), and up to a numeracy level equivalent to an average 9-11 year old (so-called Entry Level 3).

£1bn pa is a lot of cash, so just how bad is our literacy/numeracy position?

According to the government, as of 2005, 15% of adults were below their target level for literacy, and 21% below for numeracy.

But what does that mean? What do we actually mean by literacy and numeracy?

When you get down to practicalities, the concepts are very slippery. For example, one widely used measure of mass literacy in the nineteeth century is the proportion of people who signed the marriage register with their name rather than a cross. In 1800, both partners signed in only 30% of marriages, which had shot up to around 95% by 1900. But does signing your name constitute literacy as we understand it today?

A 1999 report by superannuated mandarin Sir Claus Moser included the following two striking pictures:



The first pic is a poster for a concert: according to Moser, one in sixteen adults (6%) would not be able to understand where the concert is being held. And with the second pic, if they bought the items shown, no less than a quarter of adults would be unable to calculate what change they'd get from £2.

Shocking, but maybe some people will simply always be like that. And in the age of computers, does it matter that you can't work out your change to the nearest penny?

We need to know how we compare to other developed countries.

The OECD has done a number of surveys on this, and although there are always apples and pears issues, it does look like we compare badly. Here's their comparison of standardised illiteracy rates in the 1990s (again from the Moser Report):


So apart from the fact that all those Polish plumbers are very illiterate indeed, we're pretty well the worst performing, along with the US and Ireland. And there's a similar picture on numeracy.

So why might that be?

There seem to be two reasons.

First, our state schools do a shocking job teaching the three Rs. Despite nearly two decades of National Curricula, targets, literacy hours etc etc, those who struggle simply get left behind (see many previous blogs, eg here).

As we've said many times, Mrs T used to teach 7-8 year olds in a traditional state primary school. The whole focus of that year was to make sure that all the children could read and write properly, and everything was geared around that. And although I say so as shouldn't, from what I could see, she got excellent results*.

Somehow, I don't think most state primaries operate like that any more. The curriculum has been watered down, and it's clear from recent debates over synthetic phonics that "tedious" stuff like spelling tests and dictation have largely gone.

But of course, it isn't just our poor schools. There's the question of all those migrants for whom English is a foreign language.

Even when Moser did his report, this was a major problem. He found a very high concentration of illiteracy among immigrant groups, with for example, 37% of Punjabi speakers scoring zero on a standard literacy test. Zero.


A terrible indictment of multiculturalism. But as we all now know by, Labour's open doors mass immigration "policy" has made the whole problem ten times worse. Not only has it swamped our inner city schools with a multitude of foreign tongues (eg see this blog), but at the same time, it's delivered hundreds of thousands more adults who can't speak English properly, let alone read and write it.

Forget those ludicrous assertions about the economic benefits of immigration: the NAO Report says this is a major issue. Teaching these people English is already costing us £300m pa through the Skills for Life programme, but demand for places far outstrips supply. And foreign language immigrants are by far the most expensive people to teach, costing nearly three times as much as a standard Level 1 course:


So, just to sum up: we are spending £1bn pa on attempting to correct for the manifold failure of state education, and a half-baked immigration policy.

And the final cherry?

There is no evidence all this money is actually improving literacy. Yes, over 12m courses have been taken, but taking courses is the easy bit. There is no evidence they're actually working. The NAO says:

"The true impact of the Skills for Life programme on the nation’s skills base is not known. The 2003 Skills for Life survey identified the scale of the problem at that time. Until a follow-up survey is undertaken the impact of the programme on the nation’s skills base will not be known as some people will gain the skills without achieving a qualification, some may lose the skills acquired, some young people enter the adult population with poor basic skills, the skills needs of the migrant population may change with time and some adults with poor basic skills will reach retirement age and drop out of the adult working-age population."

The success is not known. But the spending carries on regardless.

*Footnote: if you're ever in Shropshire you should visit the excellent Coalbrookdale Museums. In their Blists Hill Victorian Town you will find a Victorian school room. Take a good look at the work chalked on the blackboard - in fantastic copperplate - and ask how many of today's primary school kids could do it. You might also want to invest in a copy of Samuel Smiles' classic account of how ambitious Victorians educated themselves through books, evening institutes, and self-help groups.

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