Literacy Levels: Seven million struggle to read or count

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The Independent Online
SEVEN MILLION adults in Britain have serious problems with reading and maths - a bigger proportion than in any other country apart from Poland and Ireland, a report to be published today will state.

About 2 million can barely read or add up at all, according to Sir Claus Moser, who chaired the government working party on adults' basic skills. One in five cannot find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. One in three adults cannot calculate the area of a room that is 21 by 14 feet, even with a calculator, and one in four cannot work out what change they should receive from pounds 2 when they buy goods worth pounds 1.35.

Surveys show that 23 per cent of Britons have serious problems with literacy and 23 per cent with numeracy, compared with 12 per cent and 7 per cent respectively for Germans. In literacy Sweden does best, followed by the Netherlands. In numeracy the Germans and Swedes top the league.

Today ministers are expected to announce a drive to work towards the report's recommendation of cutting the 7 million figure by half. Sir Claus will state that the figures are "shocking" and point out that the figure for 19-year-olds is only slightly lower than that for older people.

He will comment that the situation is "a sad reflection on past decades of schooling", and add that this is the first time a government has decided to grasp the problem.

The report suggests that the Government will need to be spending about pounds 680m a year by the year 2005 if it is to achieve the recommended targets. It argues for a clear national strategy to replace the present patchy arrangements. Its authors say they were shocked by employers' lack of commitment to improving workers' basic skills: many felt that literacy and numeracy were the responsibility of schools. Because of the stigma attached to illiteracy, basic-skills courses need to be more easily available in pubs, clubs and factories, the report will state.

One of the biggest challenges for the Government is to fund basic-skills courses in the workplace. Sir Claus will state in the report: "Improving their basic skills can enable people to earn more, to spend more, to help the economy to grow faster. The benefits to industry and the economy may be hard to calculate but they must be vast."

For individuals, numeracy and literacy problems "can hardly be a surer way to social exclusion".

Basic-skills courses need to be of higher quality and those who teach them must be better trained. Only about 10 per cent of teachers on such courses have any training.

Ministers have promised to double to 500,000 a year the number of people helped with literacy and numeracy. Today they are expected to point to existing initiatives, including pounds 44m for the University for Industry to tackle basic skills and pounds 6m for family literacy and numeracy initiatives.

The new literacy and numeracy hours in schools are designed to ensure that pupils reach a basic standard before they leave primary school.