Literacy skills 'lacked by six million adults': Patten pledges pounds 250,000 for improvement scheme

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ONE IN seven 21-year-olds are below the standard of most eight-year-olds in reading and writing and one in five performs less well than a nine-year- old in maths, according to a survey published yesterday.

For the study, done at City University for the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit, 1,650 men and women from a group born in one week in 1970 were given a 30-minute assessment. When they were shown an advertisement for 'The Firm, appearing at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre', 5 per cent could not even say where the concert was taking place.

Scores for maths were worse than those in English; 40 per cent could not work out how many pound coins to give a shopkeeper to pay for four items costing pounds 1.40, pounds 7.15, pounds 3.86 and 79p. Overall, 35 per cent were below the level of most 13-year-olds.

Fifteen per cent scored full marks on reading and writing and 25 per cent on numbers.

Alan Wells, the unit's director, said the research broadly confirmed earlier studies showing that about six million people in Britain lack the literacy skills they need, though only about 1 per cent of the population is illiterate. However, it questions previous findings that more men than women have difficulty with reading and writing. This study found that equal numbers of women and men are struggling with reading and writing and that more women than men have problems with numbers.

These problems, the survey shows, are passed from generation to generation. Sixty-one per cent of 10-year-olds with low reading and writing scores had parents in the same category. Men in this group were three times as likely to be unemployed.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, told the unit's annual conference that the Government was giving 'a modest sum' - pounds 250,000 - to set up pilot schemes to improve family literacy. He said: 'This is a major issue for us as a country in terms of competitiveness. I do not believe Germany and France have the same problems . . . If there is a justification for the national curriculum and testing it is in the figures which the unit has released today.'

Dr Wells told the conference: 'Most of what has happened in the last 30 years has been too little, too late. Much has been based on a spare change mentality, rather than an assessment of what is required.'