Basic Skills Still a Problem for Many Adults

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 24 March 2011

Reference: PAC 09/10/11

One in four adults here has significant problems with reading and maths, and current programmes do not fully their meet needs. That stark message comes as the Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee publishes its report on adult literacy and numeracy.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Committee Chair Paul Maskey MLA said: “Literacy and numeracy is a major problem in our society; it has no boundaries and no easy solution. T ackling this problem is not simply about improving education—there are much wider social and other issues involved which impact on the local economic, health and justice systems. Therefore, the introduction of a joined-up, cross-departmental approach which seeks to prevent, as well as correct, these shortcomings is essential.

“Raising the level of literacy and numeracy skills within such a substantial proportion of the adult population here represents an enormous challenge. The Committee recognises that the problem is not of the Department for Employment and Learning’s (DEL) making; rather, it is a legacy of the schools system over successive generations. Nevertheless, the Department has a primary responsibility to address that problem.”

Over the nine years to 2010-11, DEL spent some £70 million on ‘Essential Skills’, its adult literacy and numeracy education programme. By July 2010, just over 83,000 people had enrolled on courses, of whom some 51,000 had gained an Essential Skills qualification. More recently, greater numbers of people have been enrolling on the programme, however, those with the lowest skill levels are yet to be brought into the system. At the current rate of progress, it could take the Department decades to overcome Northern Ireland’s literacy and numeracy skills deficit.

To address key issues highlighted in the Report, the Committee has recommended that the Department closely monitors the ‘Essential Skills’ programme. This will ensure that the appropriate action is taken to improve the quality of tuition, better manage student attendance and more effectively integrate ‘Essential Skills’ training within vocational courses.

Chairperson Paul Maskey concluded: “There is a clear need for major cultural change locally, so that education becomes much more highly valued throughout the population.

“DEL currently funds some 20,000 people each year to participate in Essential Skills training. However, given the huge number of the working age population with poor literacy and numeracy skills, this level of provision appears inadequate. The Committee acknowledges that, in a time of economic cutbacks, sufficiently resourcing the ‘Essential Skills’ programme is in itself a challenge. Nevertheless, it is one to which the Department will have to rise if it is to make a greater impact on the basic skills deficit than has been evident to date.”

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