We were afraid to say we didn't understand

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Until two years ago, Fay Bullivant carried a pocket dictionary everywhere she went, writes Lucy Ward. She was terrified that, without her lifeline, even writing a simple note or filling in a form might expose her struggles with spelling and punctuation, covering her in shame and embarrassment.

Fay began to conquer her fear only when, at the age of 48, she mustered the courage to enrol on an adult literacy course and began slowly to fill in the gaps in her learning that had sapped her confidence since school.

"I was one of the many adults who didn't have a very good education," said Fay, who attended a convent school in the East End of London and now lives in Havering. "In my day, if you weren't up and running you were left on the heap. We were brought up afraid to speak up and say we didn't understand."

Leaving school at 15 with no qualifications, Fay became a machinist for a garment firm, wary of trying any job requiring literacy skills. "I went into the rag trade because those were jobs where I could use my hands and not my brain. There were many people like me. I used to say I couldn't have stood being shut up in an office all the time, but really that was just an excuse."

Wherever possible, Fay would avoid situations where her writing or spelling would be tested.

In 1995, a leaflet through the door from Havering Basic Skills Service provided the impulse for change. Despite fears of embarrassment, Fay signed up, and, two years on, has passed GSCE English and a wordpower qualification.

Now beginning training as an aromatherapist, she advises others with literacy difficulties to face up to the problem. "I've gained enormous confidence. I know I've still got a long way to go, but I've got the determination to stick at it."