Could do better: latest overview of adult literacy in the UK
Posted by Jonathan Douglas
The 2003 Skills for Life Survey has provided the benchmark for everyone working to address adult basic literacy skills. Last week the Government published a repeat of the survey which updates the picture.
The results have been eagerly awaited. What has been the impact of the massive government investment in adult basic skills over the last decade? Has the National Literacy Strategy in schools raised the literacy levels of a new generation of school leavers? At the same time what has been the impact of agencies such as the National Literacy Trust, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education’s work on adult literacy as well as initiatives such as the 2008 National Year of Reading?
The results suggest that there have been significant changes in literacy levels: the numbers of adults with level 2+ literacy have gone up from 44.2% to 56.6% (level 2+ is the equivalent to a good GCSE grade A*-C), it seems that this is because there has been a significant drop in level 1s, these have gone down from 39.5% to 25.8% (Level 1 is the equivalent to GCSE grades D-G). However, the number with the poorest literacy skills has not changed significantly: there are still 15% of adults at or below entry level 3 (the equivalent of the level expected in the National Curriculum of11 year olds). Worryingly, the number with entry level 1 (the equivalent of the National Curriculum’s 5-7 year old) has grown slightly between 2003 and 2011, from 3.4% to 5%. The research estimates this group to be 1.7 million.
“Low hanging fruit” is an ugly term, but the statistics do suggest that the approaches of the last decade have been successful in improving the literacy skills of adults who have already mastered the basics, whilst not impacting significantly on the 1 in 6 for whom the issues are more complex. We know that many of these individuals face challenging social issues which might make it hard for them to access learning opportunities. The research also confirms a strong correlation between weak literacy, numeracy and ICT skills.
Rather depressingly there was little variation between the 16-18 year old cohort literacy levels in 2003 and in 2011. Most of the 2011 cohort will have been pupils who experienced the first years of the National Literacy Strategy in their primary education.
The fundamental challenge posed by the report is how are we to support the literacy of the 5.1 million adults (15%) who still read below the level the National Curriculum expects of 11 year olds? These seem to have been only slightly impacted by the push of the past decade.
Our experience at the National Literacy Trust suggests that the answer is frequently out there. There are places where extraordinary things are already happening and we need to learn from them. Over the past four years I have learnt a lot from working with the community literacy programme in Derbyshire – in fact until recently I was lucky enough to be a board member of Read On – Write Away!, the group that has led activity across the authority. This programme has several characteristics which genuinely seem to engage the learners who have most to gain:
- It is built on research into the lives and aspirations of groups who we need to engage as learners
- It is multi-agency, engaging a wide range of partners and services who can reach learners
- It is built on a strong focus on families
- It is different in different communities
- It is about what people are interested in – getting a new job, mending your bike, being a great mum – not about “pure” literacy
The Read On – Write Away! approach also builds on what is already there, both in the community and in its social capital, in families and their aspirations and in the services that are already supporting them with dedication and creativity. As we refresh our vision following the publication of the new research, this is the key theme we will need to hold on to.
Read the full report of the research here.
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