Rebuilding the economy – the role of literacy
Posted by Jonathan Douglas
From nowhere we suddenly seem to be surrounded by green shoots. The consensus is growing that the worst of the recession has passed and whilst there are abiding fears of a second dip, economic optimism prevails and economic indicators are increasingly positive. This is an important moment to assert the place of literacy in rebuilding the economy. It is also vital that we stay alert to the longer term impact of the recession on literacy support.
Statisticians have long calculated the cost to the economy of poor literacy skills. And it is generally accepted that a sustainable economic growth policy needs to be built on a commitment to increasing literacy. A nation where 41% of employers report concerns about the basic skills of their employees (1), needs a stronger foundation of skills. Moving out of a recession we need a renewed and sustained commitment to skilling the workforce. In the digital age, literacy is more important for equality of opportunity than ever before.
However, we know that those who hold few or no qualifications are least likely to participate in basic skills courses. So, unless we are content to rebuild a society where those who have suffered most from the recession continue to suffer most in the upturn, we need to address the issue of how we grow the demand for skills among those who need them most. We need to help more people understand the real, tangible and practical value of increasing their skills.
At the same time as the economic recovery becomes more apparent, the spectre of public sector spending cuts threatens the very education sector which will be required to support sustained growth. These cuts are the result of the drop in government revenue during the recession and the increasing national debt necessitated by economic stabilisation activities.
The Comprehensive Spending Review required by March 2011 will determine where these cuts will occur. Former Cabinet Minister, James Purnell, has recently called for the Labour Party to hold true to its priority of education, education, education and to ring-fence education spending, preserving it from impending cuts. However there are no signs from any of the parties that they see any public service sector as immune.
In the past ten years the work of many charities and community organisations has benefitted from government funding for vital programmes and services targeting the most disadvantaged. This funding looks increasingly vulnerable in the context of constrained public funding. As a result, the work of charities, including the National Literacy Trust, face very real challenges at a time when it is more vital than ever to the nation’s future. We will fight to maintain our support from government by championing the importance of literacy and committing to rigorous performance measures, including value for money, but we know it will get harder.
So despite economic optimism, uncertainties remain in assessing how the recession will ultimately impact on literacy. One thing is certain – governments demonstrate through their commitment to literacy, a commitment to issues far wider than school standards. Rationing literacy support rations aspiration. By proactively supporting literacy, government gives a voice to its citizens, promoting their rights of participation in society and empowering democratic discourse. In the next eighteen months, we hope to see a political commitment to literacy as a spending priority.
Jonathan Douglas, September 2009
(1) CBI Taking stock: education and skills survey 2008
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