Literacy skills lacking in Wales

Cerys Furlong says it is not only the young who lack basic literacy skills.

The adult population is growing, and is set to continue to increase over the next fifty years; there are already 25,000 people in Wales aged 90 or above. There are 1.2 million people in Wales aged over 50. As the pace of change continues, individuals are going to work longer and change jobs more frequently. Access to skills and learning therefore is vital for people to stay healthy, productive and happy in both work and retirement.

This week on Click on Wales…

This week on Click on Wales we’re looking at literacy in a modern Wales. Over the next five days we’ll be featuring pieces from NIACE Cymru, Save the Children and Literature Wales among others. 

Adult learning – sometimes called lifelong learning, or continuing education – covers all learning beyond the age of compulsory education, and particularly over the age of 18.

It covers a wide range of learning, including learning in and for work, self-directed and personal learning, and learning for social confidence. It includes adult community learning, apprenticeships, work-based learning and higher education, delivered in a variety of settings, and both accredited and non-accredited courses.

The point about learning is that it should enable individuals to understand the choices you have, and to influence those choices in the first place. This might be the choice to learn, to enable you to access a better career, or to support your children with their own learning. But also more generally about understanding the change around us (the switch to online banking, using a smart phone, or filling in a form), and adapting to that change. Finally Learning should also be about empowering people to shape change for themselves.

However, at present, investment in skills and adult education in Wales is too heavily focused on young adults, to the detriment of people aged 25 and over. Investment in full time higher education, dominated by 18-24 year olds, has been shown to be a sound investment, but alternatives must be funded and widely available.

Across the UK, around 1 in 6 adults still struggle with reading and writing; the latest Welsh stats (2010) show that 12% of the Welsh population have not reached Level 1 of basic literacy skills – a problem that is particularly acute in over 55s, where 15% of the population are below Level 1. Basic literacy is still the skill employers cite as being of concern when they are recruiting (CBI / Pearson Education and Skills Survey, 2014).

We must also consider the position of digital skills in a modern Wales. Welsh Government has not entered Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)– the international comparator for adult skills – and as such, there is no Welsh evidence base on this. However, stats from England and Northern Ireland’s PIAAC assessments suggest that around half of adults lack the basic skills to effectively use a computer.

Individuals, as communities, and collections of citizens, of whatever size and make up need learning to take control of our lives. Children learn to read, and this equips them into adulthood to read to learn, whether that be numeracy, digital competency or any other skills. When adults don’t have sound literacy skills, their opportunities are greatly diminished.

Literacy, numeracy and digital skills underpin adult learning, enabling adults to participate and contribute fully in society, and support economic growth. NIACE Cymru believes in widening access to these skills, particularly amongst under-represented groups in society, as well as improving the range and quality of provision available to all adults.

Cerys Furlong is Director of NIACE Cymru

7 thoughts on “Literacy skills lacking in Wales

  1. Like many unfamiliar with the jargon of modern education I didn’t actually know what Level 1 really meant so, using my poor over-50 IT skills, I had to look it up. Seems the MoD has soldiers at Entry Level 3, promotion to Corporal requires Level 1 and onwards to Sergeant requires Level 2 (which equates to an O Level pass in old currency). See

    I note from the WG MytLocalSchool website that 66% of children in Wales are currently already leaving school at Level 2.

    Your article states that 12% of the general welsh population is below Level 1 (15% of over 55’s) but you give no context to these figures. Is that a good number or a bad number ? Life has taught me that we are all of different ability and inevitably some of the population are going to be below the general standard. The reasons are various but will include SEN, those truly achieving at their natural ability limit and those who are simply underachieving. If the latter group made up 5% of your total general population and were to be focussed on, then we are targeting @ 150,000 individuals. Within that group some are still in the educational process where much work is currently being focussed and some simply cannot be bothered to take the self improvement route.

    So I would like to know what realistically is the ‘gap’ to be closed and then to get an idea of the resource required to achieve this and to quantify the net benefit to the nation flowing on from the project.

  2. People with adult literacy and numeracy problems were all school kids with literacy and numeracy problems… We all know where the failure lies!

    It doesn’t help in Wales when WM early years education causes a significant number of kids with dyslexia to be diagnosed late – too late in many cases for remedial work to undo the damage done between 7, when it should be diagnosed, and 10-11 when it often is diagnosed in WM ysgols. Another Welsh scandal nobody wants to talk about or to be accountable for…

  3. Thanks for the comment Brian, and apologies for the use of education jargon.. its definitely a bad habit!

    There is a good link here which shows the different levels and what they equate to in terms of qualifications which people recognise, like GCSEs.

    So, Level 1 would equate to GCSEs at grades D-G. What I am saying is that far too many adults have literacy and numeracy skills which are below this- the level of qualification we expect young people to achieve by age 15. Other research suggests that 1 in 6 adults struggle with basic reading and writing- these are the skills needed for functioning in every day life- reading bills, paying bills, reading letters from your children’s school, understanding the APR on a payday loan/ credit card.. i could go on.

    As another aside, you mention the army and you are right- The army does actually invest heavily in improving the skills of its recruits, and NIACE has worked in partnership with the army for many years. Unfortunately for too many adults, their employers do not make the same investment

  4. Cerys,

    Thank you for affording me the courtesy of a prompt reply. But if I may press you again on numbers. You state ‘ far too many adults have literacy and numeracy skills which are below this (level 1)’ but that is a subjective statement. How many of those that fall into this basket are realistically capable of being brought out of it by adult education intervention. If currently 12% of the general population are below par what should that number actually be. What is it in the best performing countries ? As my maths teacher used to say – show me your workings 🙂

    The loose measure of ‘too many’ makes for a weak foundation to a business case.

  5. Here is the report from 2010 Brian, that shows 12% at Entry Level

    I’m hardly trying to gloss the figures!!

    the more important point, in my view, is that we aren’t even doing this survey on a regular basis so who knows what the picture is like now. This is why NIACE calls for Welsh Government to enter the OECD survey PIAAC, which is an international comparison of skills

  6. Cerys

    Thank you for the reference which, on inspection (p10) shows that actually we saw a step improvement in literacy levels in Wales across the period 2004-10. Levels went from 25% below level 1 in 2004 to 12% in 2010 – that equated to @ 216,000 adults below the line (down from 450,000). If that trajectory has been maintained we should now be approaching 100,000 below Level1. Of course my old maths teacher taught me to be wary of graphs with only two data points on the line so I support your call for further measurement. Of course the graph is going to be asymptotic to zero, sadly some will never make it. The target set by WG stated in your reference was that 80% of the population should have literacy above level 1 in 2010. That (unsubstantiated) target was exceeded in 2010 and, as better learning outcomes from schools are kicking in, combined with my cohort of semi literate over 50’s expiring, the numbers are highly likely to have improved in the interim. Yes lower levels of literacy may still be prevalent in lower socio-economic groups on a percentage basis but in absolute terms, looking at the big picture this is a battle that is being won.

    Not so encouraging is the data on numeracy.(again p10) which effectively flatlined across the same period. The corresponding (lower !) WG target of 55% achieving level 1 numeracy was missed in 2010. Schools results for mathematics are improving but still trailing english by 5% at level 1. 61.7% of children left school with Level 1 maths in 2014 (MyLocalSchool stats).

    I think we are having the wrong conversation this week about literacy, it is numeracy that needs the focus. Confidence in numeracy improves take up of STEM subjects which in turn leads to better skilled higher paid jobs – the sort we need more of in Wales. Adequate literacy but poor numeracy steers people towards taking a degree in tree climbing and animal noises at the university of ‘We’ve only got a bunsen burner’ which in turn leads to a disappointing career as a post graduate burger flipper saddled with an unpayable debt.

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