We have found that people are staggered when one confronts them with the basic facts about literacy and numeracy, and rightly so. It is staggering that over the years millions of children have been leaving school hardly able to read and write, and that today millions of adults have the same problems. Of course, one can argue about definitions, but the stark facts are all too clear. Roughly 20% of adults - that is perhaps as many as 7 million people - have more or less severe problems with basic skills, in particular with what is generally called 'functional literacy' and 'functional numeracy':
It is a shocking state of affairs in this rich country, and a sad reflection on past decades of schooling and policy priorities over the years.
Moreover, the key facts are not new. I drew attention to the literacy problems nearly a decade ago in my Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Even then the facts were hardly new. Following that address, the National Commission on Education in the early '90s again emphasised the problem. Moreover, the Basic Skills Agency, in its sterling work, has repeatedly drawn attention to the issues and pointed towards potential solutions. But, as a national priority, improvements in literacy and numeracy never reached the front of the policy queue.
So it was most encouraging when the Government launched the National Strategies for Literacy and Numeracy for schools. This gives every hope that today's and future generations of children will have the right start. As a result, by 2050 it should have ceased to be a problem, and a Working Group such as ours should be unnecessary. But we are far from that, which is why the Government, as part of its plans for lifelong education, has included basic skills as a key area. This makes total sense, since command of these basic skills is a necessary step towards the higher goals of education throughout life.
Our Working Group was appointed by The Rt. Hon. David Blunkett, MP, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, in June 1998. The terms of reference he set us state clear objectives in improving the lot of the many adults whose quality of life can be enriched by enhancing their basic skills. All of us on the Working Group welcomed the Secretary of State's initiative and the opportunity it has given us to point the way towards A Fresh Start.
We are at pains in the Report to show how serious the consequences of poor or limited basic skills are for society, for the economy, and - always at the forefront of our thinking - for families and individuals. At their most severe, the handicaps for the individual can be devastating. I can't put this better than by quoting from the remarkable recent novel by Bernhard Schlink 'The Reader' (1997).
We propose a National Strategy - complementary to the strategies now in place for schools - which is intended to succeed in attracting potential learners into study schemes. To succeed, much will have to be done to improve what is on offer, to make study programmes more accessible, and to ensure that the quality and standards of curricula, and learning opportunities are attractive.
Not least, it will involve a vast expansion in information technology facilities available to learners. We are convinced that the use of I.C.T is one of the most effective - and attractive - ways of enhancing one's basic skills. It points to a clear priority for Government, linked to what is already being done for schools.
It is a tough challenge. The key commitment has to be from Government and the fact that the Secretary of State set us ambitious terms of reference is the most encouraging signal. But once the Government has shown its support, and its willingness to provide the necessary resources, the implementation of what is needed will demand commitment and involvement from everyone, local authorities and institutions, business and industry, voluntary organisations, colleges and the media. All have a part to play in what must be a national and ongoing crusade. It has got to be as stirring as when the school-leaving age was to be raised to 16, and for other such major transformations. The work of our group was stimulated throughout by the feeling that we were dealing with something 'big', something that could help millions of fellow-citizens, and that now called for genuine devotion of national energy and resources. Given that determination, we believe that the problems can be solved.
I must mention some limitations in the scope of the Report. Geographically, it is limited to England. It does not cover Scotland or Northern Ireland, nor Wales, which has separate arrangements.
We have not addressed wider key skills, although, where appropriate, we discuss overlaps between literacy and numeracy on the one hand and key skills of communication and the application of number on the other. We have made proposals about the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in helping basic skill programmes, a vital priority for the future. But we have not addressed the teaching of ICT skills as such. This issue - the future of ICT as a basic skill in itself - is of utmost importance, and is being considered by the National Skills Task Force.
In general, we have not separated literacy and numeracy, except where they merit different strategies. Most adults who have difficulties with reading and writing are also weak in numeracy. But relatively few who are good at reading and writing turn out to have very poor numeracy.
Our top priority relates to adults below Level 1 in literacy and below Entry Level in numeracy*, which means roughly 20% of adults. This is the threshold of functional literacy and functional numeracy, although in due course most people might achieve a higher level. So we have thought it important to bear in mind what happens beyond, not least for Level 2.
Most of our proposals are appropriate for teaching English as an additional language (EAL), and certainly we have kept this in mind throughout. At certain points we refer to special EAL aspects. But it would be sensible if a separate effort is made, following this report, to review its special implications in the EAL context.
We have not been able to consider the special needs of adults with learning disabilities who wish or need to improve their basic skills. We are conscious of the important concerns at issue. In particular, there is the need to ensure that sufferers from dyslexia are helped with targeted basic skills programmes, where needed. This calls for a special study, following this report, to assess where its recommendations are appropriate and where they should be supplemented.
Our Recommendations are set out at the end of individual chapters (from Chapter 5 onwards) and are brought together in a single list at the end. This is followed by our proposed Implementation Plan, suggesting the timescale, costs and responsibility for individual recommendations.
Our Work Pattern
We started in June 1998, and met on 20 occasions. We had discussions with the main organisations involved in relevant funding and provision arrangements, including the Further Education Funding Council, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Local Government Association, the Training and Enterprise Councils National Council, the Training Standards Council, and the Office for Standards in Education. We met with Dr Thomas Sticht, a leading researcher on adult basic skills in the United States. The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, Andrew Smith, MP, addressed one of our meetings; and we were also helped by a discussion with Baroness Blackstone, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, at a Basic Skills Agency Board Meeting.
A wide range of organisations and individuals responded to our public invitation to give evidence, either in writing or via the web site: they are listed in Annex B, as are all the organisations which met with us. We held seminars with basic skills tutors and learners.
Our task deserved the commitment and urgency required by the Secretary of State. I would like to express my appreciation to members of the Working Group for their individual contributions and their collective determination to produce an effective Report. Everyone has worked hard and constructively.
We were set up as an independent Committee. But we have worked closely with the Department for Education and Employment and with the Basic Skills Agency, and especially with Mr Derek Grover, Director, Skills and Lifelong Learning and the senior representative of the Department; and with Mr. Alan Wells, Director of the Basic Skills Agency, who was our specialist adviser. Both took part throughout in our discussions, and we are immensely indebted to them for bringing their experience and wisdom to our deliberations.
An enormous amount of work had to be done in producing briefing papers for the Working Group and with all the back-up a Committee such as ours needs. I want to express our thanks to Felicity Everiss, Marie Devall and Ian McVicar from the Department of Education and Employment; and to Jim Pateman, Charlotte Pearson and Jaz Bangar from the Basic Skills Agency. They have worked tirelessly and with evident effect.
I should note that a number of the key briefing papers prepared by the BSA will be issued in a separate publication.