A nation stuck for words

Half of British adults lack literacy skills
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Almost half British adults lack the literacy skills needed to cope with modern life, an authoritative international survey to be published later this year will show.

The study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that nearly 50 per cent of British 16- to -65-year-olds have difficulty understanding a bus timetable or following instructions about how to position a bicycle seat correctly.

Its findings come as both the Conservatives and Labour are preparing to put higher standards in literacy and numeracy at the heart of their election campaigns.

Yesterday, David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman for education, demanded the report be published before the general election so that the public could judge the Government's record. The Office for National Statistics is not due to release it until the summer - after the last possible date for an election.

More than 40,000 adults in 14 countries were tested in the survey. Results for the first seven countries were published two years ago and the survey of the rest, including England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, was carried out last year.

Participants were interviewed and given tasks to determine where they should be placed on a five-level scale which measures functional literacy. People at the lowest level - one - cannot even read the label on an aspirin bottle. People at level three cannot, for example, look at a bus timetable and say when the last bus for a particular destination leaves on Saturday night.

Experts say people need to reach level three to cope with the demands of everyday life in modern society but nearly 50 per cent of Britons failed to do so in the new survey. In the study of the first seven countries Sweden came top with only around a quarter of people unable to carry out level-three tasks and the Netherlands came second with around 30 per cent. Germany was third with around 40 per cent. The figure for the US was just under 50 per cent.

Polish adults performed worst with 7 out of 10 unable to complete the level-three tasks. France was so embarrassed by the results that it withdrew before the final report came out.

Details of the latest study are being finalised for the OECD by Statistics Canada which will work out the final ranking of the 14 countries during the next six weeks. Mr Blunkett said: "It is vital that voters get the chance to judge the Government's record on literacy and numeracy before the election.

"If these results are as bad as indicated, they are an appalling indictment of the Government's record on basic skills. Ministers should publish them without delay. I will be pressing them to do so in Parliament next week."

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, last week promised an announcement later this month on new initiatives to improve young people's basic skills.