Making our small country clever

Dave Egan welcomes Welsh Labour’s commitment to tackle the nation’s literacy deficit

The announcement in the Wales Labour Party General Election Manifesto that a National Literacy Programme aimed at 7 to 11 year olds is to be established is to be greatly welcomed. Wales currently has major weaknesses in the literacy levels of its population. The last survey of adult basic skills in Wales revealed that one quarter of the adult population had literacy skills below level 1 and were, therefore, functionally illiterate. In England and Wales terms, Wales has a highest proportion of adult illiteracy than any of the English regions.

The roots of this problem lie in school education. By the age of seven only 82 per cent of children in Wales achieve the expected level in English and by the age of fourteen that percentage falls to 69 per cent. Only 64 per cent of our young people achieve a grade C or above in English at GCSE.

The proportions of students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve these levels is much lower and difficulties with literacy are widely recognised to be one of the most significant factors in educational low and under achievement in Wales. Boys tend to do far less well than girls in these assessments and again this is seen to be a major causative factor in the relative under-achievement of males compared to females.

Whilst this literacy deficit is a UK and international phenomenon, Wales’ performance does not compare well. Out of the 57 OECD countries, Wales was positioned 30th for the reading ability of its fifteen year olds in international tests undertaken in 2006.

The effects of this literacy problem are well known and evidenced. The Webb Report in 2007 and the first report of the Wales Employment and Skills Board both pointed to concerns that employers have with the literacy deficit and the functional ability of young people who enter the workforce with the accepted proxy for literacy – a Grade C or better in GCSE English.

These concerns are shared in parts of higher education, including in teacher training. The implications for this situation in relation to employability and the general health of our economy are serious. At a societal level literacy is known to be an indicator and cause of child poverty and more general socio-economic disadvantage. At an individual level there is a strong association between illiteracy and those who experience health problems, quite apart from individuals who become involved in criminal activity.

Whilst other countries faced by these problems have undertaken national enquiries and developed national strategies, successive governments in Wales have decided not to move in this direction. However, the work of the Basic Skills Agency in Wales with its all-age approach to tackling illiteracy, has been a significant development.

The announcement in the Labour manifesto is, therefore, a major step forward in addressing this policy deficit and will be welcomed across the educational sector. Increasingly educationalists in Wales have recognised literacy difficulties as being one of the major challenges faced in improving educational performance, particularly in our most disadvantaged communities.

While there is a general recognition that the age group 7 to 11 is an important time in relation to literacy development, it is to be hoped that the proposed programme will also look back to the experience of the Foundation Phase, where literacy problems first present themselves. Additionally, it will need to look forward to the early years in secondary school where, in very different circumstances, literacy levels actually decline more than they do between 7 and 11.

If the proposed programme is this broad in conception and focuses on literacy as the greatest difficulty that our most disadvantaged young people face in achieving their educational potential, it offers the possibility of overcoming one of the major barriers faced in creating the small, clever, country that is at the heart of Labour’s vision for Wales.

David Egan is Professor of Education at UWIC and a former Special Adviser for Education to the Welsh Government. He recently chaired a Welsh Government Review of 8-14 Education in Wales.

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