Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
National Adult Literary Agency: Discussion
We will resume in public session with the second item of the meeting which is on addressing deficiencies in adult literacy. I welcome the representatives of the National Adult Literacy Agency.
I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The witnesses' opening statement will be published on our website after the meeting. Everybody should switch off their mobile telephones or put them in flight or safe mode.
We are looking at the issue of adult literacy and considerable progress has been made in Ireland on making our education system more accessible for our citizens over the years. It is a major concern that up to one sixth of Irish adults has difficulty understanding basic written text because literacy is fundamental in enabling a person to participate fully in all aspects of our society. To assist us in looking at this issue we have the National Adult Literacy Agency, represented today by Ms Inez Bailey and accompanied by Olive Phelan. Some of her colleagues are in the Visitors Gallery. I invite Ms Bailey to make her presentation to the committee.
Ms Inez Bailey:
NALA welcomes the opportunity to present to the committee today on addressing deficiencies in adult literacy and numeracy in Ireland. NALA is committed to making sure people with literacy and numeracy difficulties can fully take part in society and have access to learning opportunities that meet their needs. We do this through providing innovative solutions, in policy and practice, to improve outcomes for adults with literacy or numeracy needs, working in partnership with a range of public and private stakeholders in Irish society.
Unmet adult literacy and numeracy needs have devastating consequences for individuals, communities and the economy. The recent OECD adult skills survey shows that one in six Irish adults, which is 521,550 people, find reading and understanding everyday texts - for example, a bus timetable or medicine instructions - difficult According to the survey, one in four or 754,000 people have difficulties in real world maths from basic addition and subtraction to calculating averages. The survey also showed that people who scored at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels often have no or low qualifications, earn less income, are unemployed and have poorer health. According to the Central Statistics Office, there is no statistical difference between the scores of adults in the 1994 international adult literacy survey and the 2012 adult skills survey.
The European Commission response highlights that the least skilled are caught in a low-skills trap which contributes to high unemployment and threatens growth and competitiveness. Irish evidence acknowledges that further education and training sector, FET, is not optimally aligned with labour market needs and significant development is required. The recent publication of the further education and training strategy holds promise if the required increased investment is forthcoming.
The national skills strategy, which was published in 2006, set a target of improving the skills of 70,000 people to level 3 by 2020, leaving only 7% of the workforce with, at most, lower secondary qualifications. The current figure is 15.6%, which means we are unlikely to meet the target of 7% by 2020. By contrast, we are set to meet or surpass all of the targets aimed at upskilling those who already have higher education as their lowest level of qualification.
Currently, a review of the national skills strategy is under way within the Department of Education and Skills. It presents an opportunity to reflect on why our performance has fallen so short of our ambitions in the particular area and what needs to done differently in the new national skills strategy to achieve such a target in the future. Participation rates in lifelong learning in Ireland further illustrate the challenge, with Ireland at 7.3%, which is consistently well behind the EU average of 10.5% and dramatically behind the highest-performing countries in the EU. Furthermore, those with the highest educational attainment are most in evidence in participating in lifelong learning.
Currently, the adult literacy services of the education and training boards provide more than 50,000 adults with between two and six hours of adult literacy tuition per week from its €30 million budget. Such a period is often insufficient to attain a level 3, or junior certificate equivalent, qualification. In fact, the number of hours or places available to learners has decreased since the OECD survey was published. There is also a particular gap in provision for the long-term unemployed and other cohorts with literacy, numeracy or ICT needs. For example, the MOMENTUM programme is aimed specifically at unemployed people, but it no longer funds certification for people at levels 3 and 4. Also, the educational supports within the community employment programmes, aimed at people with literacy and numeracy difficulties, were removed and have never been replaced.
Decision makers need to commit to addressing the unacceptable levels of literacy and numeracy difficulties among our adult population in a similar vein to the Youth Guarantee. Our greatest resource is people, and we must enable more adults address their literacy and numeracy needs and improve their skills through the following measures: restoring the previous levels of provision for adult literacy and basic skills within the ETB system; providing access to more intensive learning options, particularly for the long-term unemployed; customising provision to engage the low-skilled, such as youths and those returning to the labour force, using blended learning and technology - for example, NALA's free interactive learning website at www.writeon.ie, which supports independent and distance learning, expands learning time and achievement within existing programmes and includes the only form of recognition of prior learning that currently exists at this level in Ireland; and engaging employers to support low-skilled workers in line with international policy and practice, of which there are numerous examples in the UK, New Zealand and the United States of America.
While unemployment rates are falling generally, people with low qualifications or skills remain particularly vulnerable. Early school leavers are over three times more likely to be unemployed than their counterparts with higher qualifications. We believe we can promote equality in our education and training system by ensuring that all adults can achieve a basic education. By targeting people caught in the low-skills trap, we can tackle some of the inequality of the current system and wider society. We believe that all unemployed people with no or low qualifications should have access, on a guaranteed basis, to an intensive basic education course that leads to a level 3 or junior certificate equivalent qualification. We further believe that all adults with less than a level 4 or leaving certificate equivalent qualification should have access to an intensive basic education course that enables then to move up at least one level.
The Irish education system is seen as one of the finest in the world and as one that serves most people well. If one has the basics, there are great opportunities and supports available. However, if an adult needs the basics, he or she is consigned at best to part-time provision with no support. We believe that access to education and training in Ireland should be fair and equitable. We also believe it is important to target initiatives at groups who would most benefit and who are most at risk of being left behind. This has been the successful intent behind ensuring that children's literacy and numeracy is a national priority. At present, the literacy and numeracy strategy for children and young people is also under review within the Department of Education and Skills. This intent must be extended to adults. NALA believes that literacy is a human right and a tool for change that enables people to participate more fully in society. NALA believes that the Government should commit to providing a guarantee of support to all adults with less than a level 4 qualification who wish go back to learning and an intensive basic education course at level 3 to unemployed people with low qualifications. These programmes could be funded through the National Training Fund, as we need to boost the current adult literacy budget to at least €50 million. In conclusion, NALA believes that there are not enough programmes or programmes of sufficient quality across the system to raise adult literacy and numeracy levels by the level required.
I thank Ms Bailey and Ms Phelan for coming before the committee today, and I thank Ms Bailey for her presentation and for expressing the issues so clearly. I commend NALA on its great work and hope that it continues to make progress. I know it strives for advances to be made in adult literacy and numeracy levels.
I would like the delegation to comment on a couple of issues. As Ms Bailey mentioned at the end of her presentation, NALA believes it would cost €50 million for the Government to provide a guarantee of support to all adults with less than a level 4 qualification to go back to learning and to provide an intensive basic education course at level 3. She stated that we need to boost the current adult literacy budget to at least €50 million. Can NALA give a breakdown of that figure? Obviously, courses must be provided.
Do the witnesses envisage that particular supports will be provided to those who will be participating in it? Could they comment on the particular difficulties being encountered by part-time students who are trying to access maintenance grants and supports, such as the back to education grant, in respect of the part-time courses they are doing? Many of the supports that are provided at the moment benefit full-time participants only. That can be a particular problem.
I was reading this morning about the latest OECD Education at a Glance report. I think it was published yesterday. The report indicates that 98% of pupils in Ireland are now completing second-level education. This compares with a figure of 85% internationally. That so many younger people are going through the education system at the moment is a demonstration of the tremendous progress that is being made. We are now seeking to target those who were failed by the education system in the first place. It is good to see that strong progress is being made to ensure that our education system equips people with basic numeracy and literacy skills and with opportunities to progress their education.
Ms Bailey suggested that the further education system is not meeting labour market needs at the moment. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on their thoughts on this matter.
I welcome Ms Bailey and Ms Phelan. I reiterate what Deputy McConalogue has said about the positive impact of the campaign and advocacy work they have been doing for many years. Could they expand a little on the point Ms Bailey made about intensive learning options? We know that the course options available to people are not sufficiently broad. Do we have the infrastructure to provide the additional courses that are needed? I presume many of them would be provided through the education and training boards. Are the boards equipped from an infrastructural perspective to tackle the issue of adult literacy and numeracy?
Ms Bailey also spoke about the need for employers to engage with low-skilled workers in line with international best practice and policy. They mentioned that there were examples in the US, New Zealand and Britain. What has been their experience with Irish employers?
Much of the document presented by the witnesses focuses on literacy issues. What steps do we need to take to deal with numeracy issues?
I will conclude by asking about the new system of apprenticeships that is being introduced. I firmly believe that literacy and numeracy need to be incorporated into every apprenticeship that is to be rolled out under the new model. If one is going to be a carpenter or a bricklayer, one will need a basic level of literacy and numeracy. In addition to teaching people the actual skills they need to enter the workforce, we should provide for an opportunity to address some literacy and numeracy issues a part of that training and apprenticeship. Do the witnesses agree with that analysis? Our approach to these matters should be about lifelong learning. We should not be suggesting that when one finishes education, that is it.
I thank Ms Bailey and Ms Phelan for their presentation. Ms Bailey suggested that the budget could be increased to €50 million. What is the current budget? Where is the agency coming from in that regard? Is it just a question of resources, or are there issues of organisation, structure and leadership as well? The CSO statistics suggest that there was no difference from 1994 to 2012. It is shocking that the resources invested over those years really had no effect. To what extent is it a resourcing issue? Do we need to revamp the whole approach to this matter?
Ms Bailey indicated that the target for the national skills strategy was to reduce the current figure of 15% of the population with qualifications lower than level 3 to 7% by 2020. Where has that come from? What progress have we made in recent times?
Deputy O'Brien mentioned intensive education courses. Is the agency's objective merely to have those courses available? What about participation levels? This initiative will require people to get involved. What effort is required to get people to the point at which they will really want to get involved? If they see the benefit of it, they will want to get on board.
I welcome the guests. It struck me when I was listening to them that the provision of resources is not the only thing that is inhibiting participation. I appreciate that the provision of resources is a very big factor in the overall situation, but I think it is a bit more complex than that. I suggest that other factors, such as personal inclinations and dispositions, are inhibiting participation as well. More than the provision of resources is required to tackle and overcome the hidden set of barriers that is sometimes deeply embedded in one's own outlook and experience. The record of the education and training boards, which were founded on the principle of outreach, shows that they cannot really be faulted in terms of how they are reaching out and providing all sorts of relevant types of education and training in areas such as personal development and preparation for work, careers and all sorts of things. Someone's personal disposition can also be an inhibiting factor.
I have a query about the CSO statistics that have been mentioned. Statistics from the PISA results, etc., show that we are improving. Those who are children when one year's statistics are produced will eventually become adults when another year's statistics are being drawn up. I believe for that reason that there must be some kind of change. I presume the CSO does not test people's abilities. Its results are based on surveys. I ask the witnesses to clarify whether that is the case.
I would like to pick up on the point that was made by other Deputies about intensive courses. I wonder what is meant by "intensive." How can we get people to do such courses? I recently attended a conference in Dublin Castle at which the Right to Read campaign was discussed. I am sure the witnesses were present at it. I was struck by an impressive presentation that was given by a princess from Holland. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her name. She seemed to be very passionate about this matter. She has done a great deal of work on it. It seemed from what she was saying that the Dutch authorities have done a great deal of work on outreach. That point may have applied to Denmark, now that I think of it. She was suggesting that outreach services have achieved a great deal of success by going to workplaces to capture people. I do not think we are doing enough of that kind of work here. Maybe it is happening, but I certainly do not see it. I ask the witnesses to comment on the agency's work in that regard. How is it funded? How much of the funding that has been mentioned goes to the agency itself? What does the agency use it for?
Ms Inez Bailey:
I will start by responding to Deputy McConalogue's point about the €50 million cost. Maybe I will answer some of the other questions as I am doing so. Our call for funding to reach that level has been supported by Social Justice Ireland, which has done an in-depth analysis of the budgetary requirements in this area. We would concur with the results of that analysis. We have said how much money is needed to build up the infrastructure of the adult literacy service within the education and training boards. We are calling for additional supports to be provided to individuals to resource the intensive approach we are advocating. Such supports could include paid learning leave or intensive courses that are supported through the Department of Social Protection for labour market activation.
This would be in addition to what the adult literacy service is getting. The adult literacy service gets €30 million, the same as it got at the peak of the crash. It means that 0.01% of the education budget is being spent in this area, which is a tiny amount of money to service 55,000 adults, and that is why they only get between two and six hours per week. If these people are going to make progress in a short space of time they need access to a more intensive programme. Whether or not they can get it in the ETB system, they need other supports such as paid educational leave.
We do not have any statutory underpinning of paid educational leave and we are one of the last few remaining countries in Europe not to have some basis for paid educational leave. We are not empowering individuals within a workplace context to take up opportunities or motivating them with support from Government to take up lifelong learning. Irish workers have a huge disincentive in comparison with other countries. When paid educational leave was being heavily debated before the crash, the big issue was universalism and the fear that if we brought in such a provision for everybody the cost would be great, but we argue that it should be targeted at people who have qualifications lower than leaving certificate level. We would take a finite group of workers or unemployed members of the labour force and provide them with an intensive skills initiative to enable them to get to the next stage in the educational system.
We have not put a figure on how much paid educational leave would cost, but it would relate to a small number of people in the labour force. It is also a declining number, so there is an opportunity, in the next 20 years while these people will be in the labour force, to give them a boost, maybe on a one-off basis. The €50 million would be to augment the level that the ETBs provide, but paid educational leave or tax support would also be required. At the moment one can get tax relief on fees for higher education, and although people at the lower level do not have to pay fees, they still incur costs in taking up education and there is no support for them whether they are part-time or full-time, although there are no full-time opportunities. We have not gone into the cost of tax support for those who are working or into paid educational leave provision at some lower level, but we think it needs to be looked at, perhaps in connection with the minimum wage discussions. A lot of people who have low educational attainment or literacy issues are also caught up in the minimum wage. It might be worth looking at connecting the skills agenda with the minimum wage.
No supports are provided on a part-time pro ratabasis, as all the supports there used to be have been closed off to people. There is no elder care for somebody going to the literacy service. They do not get any bus fare and in rural areas there are huge transport issues. There are huge physical barriers to participation and, while these have been acknowledged, nothing has been put in place to address them.
Ireland is performing extraordinarily well in OECD terms in higher education attainment rates and we surpass the tertiary rates of most countries in the world. Equally, we are doing well in terms of our ranking in PISA. Our retention rate of 98% is also high, but the children who get the benefit of this better education system have already transferred into the labour market and done the tests in the PIAAC survey. They are given a different test in PIAAC from the one given in schools. It lasts for an hour, so it is not a test one would go into lightly. If a person had any doubts about his or her ability, he or she would probably not even take the test. People are tested for an hour on a different range of literacy and numeracy competencies they will have encountered in their everyday life, not on abstract problems, as might be the case in a school test. We are not holding the achievement we attained in PISA since 2000 in the scores we are getting for the adult population. The 15 year olds from 2000 are in the labour market, so they are not the same people, though they were in the sample.
Nobody in the social research centre understands how we can be doing very well on one set of tests for 15 year old children in a test environment in school while those in the workforce who volunteer to do the test score very badly. We are significantly behind the average on the PIAAC test in numeracy against all countries. We are at the bottom. We are also below average in literacy, though not quite as bad. John Sweeney, the economist who was formerly a member of the National Economic and Social Council, has looked at the statistics and his view is that secular trends will not solve the problem. We will not stop having people with literacy and numeracy difficulties just because our schooling system has managed to retain as many people as it has or is doing as well in PISA, because these figures are not transferring and we are not holding our position in lifelong learning terms. Every other country which is doing well in PISA or in retention rates has far greater lifelong learning participation rates. They are not just banking what they have in the school system; they continue with lifelong learning. That is not happening in Ireland. That is what the statistics show, and it demonstrates the challenge we are facing. When I started in my career 20 years ago we were hoping to eradicate adult literacy and numeracy issues, and that has not happened in any country in the world.
Is Ms Bailey saying that, although we are keeping 98% of people in the second level system, they are not benefitting from it and it is not doing its job? They come out a few years later and do other tests but do not demonstrate evidence of having benefitted from completing second level education. If we are not succeeding with second level we need to carry out an assessment of the reasons. If we are not making tangible, lasting progress with people in the schooling system, we have to do it later on, as it is much more difficult to bring them back into the schooling system. There is a big contradiction in the figures Ms Bailey has given.
Ms Bailey spoke about lifelong learning, which is interesting for us. Is it the vulnerable group that loses ground when they leave second level? Is it those who were vulnerable 20 years ago who are not making progress or is it everybody?
Ms Inez Bailey:
It is not everybody, but there are people who had higher education but who nevertheless scored at the lowest level of numeracy in the PIAAC test. We had one of the largest sample sizes of all the countries that participated in the PIAAC study. It is not that it is not being taken seriously, but there has been a sense that we can insulate all of the learning that takes place in school so that it lasts a lifetime, and that is not a reasonable proposition.
For example, I went to school and learnt Irish. I do not use those skills now. I cannot speak or read Irish like I did when I went to school. In fairness there was nothing wrong with my education in terms of Irish when I reflect on it but I have not been using those skills and I have lost them.
Many people who were taught or developed their literacy and numeracy in school are no longer necessarily using those skills in everyday life, for example, in the workplace. They are particularly not using them if they are not working. Therefore, they are losing a lot of their competencies, which is what I think the PIAAC is taking up. It is concentrated among those who are coming from socioeconomic disadvantage. It is even worse in those areas and among those with that kind of background. However, those who were surveyed in PIAAC had higher education attainment and scored very badly. Certainly, on the numeracy area, they did particularly badly in how they were able to answer those questions.
We are commonly hearing from employers that they have higher education graduates coming to them who cannot do the job that needs to be done or whose communication skills do not seem to be good for what the employer requires. Most of the employer surveys that IBEC has conducted will put the communication skills of graduates as one of the key areas where employers have grave concerns. Therefore, this is not only evidence that is coming up through PIAAC. It is coming up through other modes that the schooling system, or perhaps our expectations of what can be achieved through schooling and higher education, may not be sufficient to insulate persons throughout life or may not match the everyday requirements that we must embrace.
Another example, apart from Irish, I would take would be technology skills and digital skills. I am not a digital native. Those skills were not imparted to me when I was in school, nor in higher education. I therefore had to learn them. I have predominantly learnt them through my workplace. If I was not in a workplace that was engaging in those skills, I would not have learnt them.
A lot of this is to do with the environment, the exposure and the expectation in society. The literacy and numeracy competencies that are required of adults today are actually very high. It would appear, through the testing, that people are being caught short in terms of their abilities to perform at a high enough level. The level 1 in this survey is the lowest level. While the OECD did not come out and say it, level 3 and above is considered what would be the ideal standard for the population. We have still over half of the population below that level and this is just the population in the workforce. We did not test anybody over the age of 64. We are testing persons who are aged between 16 and 25, and in comparison to other countries, we did very badly.
The last question the Deputy mentioned was the alignment with the labour market needs. A number of studies have been conducted in this area, particularly by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC. The studies show, for example, that persons could be put on courses that did not have a vocational component and did not have a labour market value to the same extent. Research we did with the ESRI on this showed that the unemployed were put on courses regardless of whether they had a literacy difficulty. They were put on the same course as somebody who did not have a literacy or numeracy difficulty, yet they benefited to a greater extent in that they were more likely to exit from unemployment than the person who did not have a literacy difficulty. There is something about what is provided to whom and how well it is provided. We are not suggesting that all those who have literacy and numeracy needs need to be removed from vocational programmes, rather we suggest that the literacy and numeracy needs are built in to all vocational programmes as they are required so that participants can move and progress for them. There is much to suggest that our courses are not sufficiently aligned with labour market needs and there are studies that have been conducted by the NESC and the ESRI on that point.
The intensive learning options is something of an infrastructural issue. We would suggest that the ETBs would find it difficult to establish intensive learning options en masseat this stage due to the fact they have gone through a massive reform programme and are still trying to come out the other end of that. Therefore, we are probably trying to suggest an intervention that will go directly to an individual, such as the paid educational leave idea, or that in the context of their programme to get out of unemployment they will be provided with a solution. The solution is aimed at and designed for the individual as opposed to a large amount of funding given to ETBs to develop their infrastructure, if that makes sense. We are trying to resource individuals so that the individuals then will be able to see what they need. That is a better driver for ETBs to respond to that demand, as opposed to building up the infrastructure separately, but it does need some attention.
There is a workplace basic education fund that comes out of the national training fund. It was set up in the early noughties. It is at €3 million and it has stayed at that for the entire period in question. It is administered through the ETBs but most employers do not know anything about it. It is supposed to be for small and medium-sized employers which can identify employees who have literacy and numeracy needs, and a customised programme can be brought to bear in their setting. That does exist, but it has a very low profile. It is low-funded. Employers are not really aware of it and are not committed to looking at their workers from the point of view of getting access to that resource because they do not really know that it exists. We believe it needs a considerable push in its own right. Employers, we would suggest, are often aware that these are issues but are not aware of how they can resolve them and unless it is an easy solution for them, they will not necessarily go out of their way to address it. However, they are aware that it is a problem and are looking for ready-made solutions that can be flexible to their needs.
In the area of numeracy, a review of the adult literacy service showed that there were very low levels of numeracy tuition available, even through the ETB service. We have very few numeracy tutors. We have a very small amount of numeracy tuition available to adults and as we can see from the PIAAC survey, we have now got an even greater problem of numeracy deficits.
What we have been looking at is how to integrate literacy and numeracy development across vocational education programmes. Instead of assuming levels of literacy and numeracy just because children have been in school and are transferring in to apprenticeships or other forms of education, such as post-leaving certificate, PLC, programmes, there should be an assessment carried out to identify any literacy and numeracy needs at that point and also to identify programmes designed to support literacy and numeracy while they are on an apprenticeship programme or in a PLC setting. At present that does not happen. There is an assumption that everybody who comes into these programmes is able to read and write sufficiently, but there is no national assessment of everybody entering into these programmes. That is a significant problem because participants are in the programme when they discover they possibly have the vocational orientation for the subject that they are studying but do not necessarily have the vocabulary or language. That is what they think they are in college to learn and we would suggest that is what they should be being supported to learn while there.
We have called for an integration of literacy and numeracy across the vocational education curriculum. SOLAS is still at the stage of conducting research about how that might happen. It has been accepted that it should happen but it has not yet started.
Deputy Ryan referred to the budgetary aspect. We are not suggesting that the increase to €50 million in the adult literacy budget would address the issues we raise here as it would merely cater for the additional requirements within the ETB adult literacy service. This paid educational leave idea for only this group of people, which would be over and above that, is the approach we suggest should be taken.
In Scandinavian countries where they identified persons with these needs, they took that cohort of the population and supplied them with an intensive learning opportunity within a year. If they were in the workplace, they took them out of the workplace and supported them to achieve it. If they were unemployed, they got an intensive programme. They isolated the cohorts completely and invested directly in those people and they were quite successful in that regard. We suggest a similar type approach where we support individuals to recognise whether they have needs and motivate them, through something like the paid educational leave idea or a tax credit, to take up the available opportunities, and increasingly use resources such as online learning and blended learning to extend the available learning time.
These programmes exist and are free but they are not very well known at present.
On the question as to where we have come from in terms of the national skills strategy, the relevant figure, I cannot recall precisely off the top of my head but it was certainly in the high 20s in 2006. Therefore, we have made progress. The bulk of that progress is coming out from the school system. We have all these younger people who have more than a junior certificate entering the labour force and an older cohort who would have had only a primary certificate leaving it. Therefore, a natural movement is occurring without us doing anything. The national skills strategy outlines that this is the scenario we should aim for if we want to do nothing, based on just using the throughput. However, the strategy sets targets that required people to do something more than that. It required investment in the workers at the time, and that has not been realised.
The higher education targets are set to be surpassed. All the investment in higher education has meant that Ireland is leading across the OECD in terms of tertiary participation rates. We are not just above average but at the top. That is how well we are doing in that area. We have noted the achievements in the mainstream schooling system. This part of the system, for those people who have not had the benefits of the earlier parts, has been left behind. Even with the targets that were set, we have not come close to achieving them. There is a serious question to be asked in this regard. I can suggest some reasons. Investment is a very big factor on my list, but we do not know enough about why we have been so poor in achieving the targets for the lower-skilled group under the national skills strategy. What we are going to do differently will be a great challenge.
On the issue of motivation, when we started our work, we launched major campaigns. At that time, a tiny percentage, approximately 5,000 people, were in adult literacy programmes. As soon as we made opportunities available, people came forward. They were not very hard to reach when opportunities were put in front of them. They were not that difficult to motivate when they could actually hear from their peers that they were coming back into education. Ms Phelan is a case in point. She is doing great advocacy work and showing others the benefits of returning to education. While motivation is a matter for us all, it has to be factored into any new strategy. Paid educational leave, the tax credit or another incentive to motivate people to make an effort might go some of the way towards covering the costs of returning to education.
Ms Inez Bailey:
We provide the online learning programme, for a start. Most of our resources go towards supporting ETB adult literacy services staff. We do most of the CPD support for the service. We are also doing most of the awareness-raising. For example, we are bringing in An Post as a key partner. It is paying for the advertisements because we do not have enough money to pay for them. Much of our work involves informing the development of the approach to literacy taken by SOLAS.
On foot of the previous presentation, we were talking about special needs education for children. I would imagine that many of the literacy and numeracy issues concern adults with special educational needs. Perhaps I am wrong but I presume a proportion of that population has dyslexia or dyscalculia.
Ms Inez Bailey:
We spoke outside with the National Council for Special Education. It commissioned a report on the progression for people with special educational needs in a post-school set of circumstances. With regard to higher education, one gets to hang onto whatever supports one had, and one has access to many supports in higher education. In full-time further education and training, one can get some supports, but if one is in the part-time system one can get nothing. The bulk of the people we meet have never been diagnosed, although they may have an indication they have dyslexia, for example. They cannot afford a €500 assessment fee from an educational psychologist who might tell them whether they have dyscalculia or dyslexia. The adult literacy service may help people address those needs if they have them, but it will be without an assessment. It is often a matter of trying to cobble together a response to them as opposed to having a more desirable approach.
There are no specialist resources. We advocate a joined-up approach between the National Council for Special Education and SOLAS to determine how we can share resources. At present, most of the resources are not even shared. We could save a lot of money just by sharing what is available in terms of our knowledge, guides and resources. There is no comprehensive lifelong learning approach to any of these areas. It is still quite siloed into the school system - the further education system - which is currently considered full-time. Those in this system contrast with the plethora of people, amounting to hundreds of thousands, engaged in part-time further and adult education and training at local level.
They are all completely excluded from what the system ordinarily provides.
Intuitively, one would deal with those who came out of the education system and those coming through the education system. The hope would be that one would stop the flow out of the education system. Based on the difference between the programme for international student assessment, PISA, and the programme for the international assessment of adult competencies, PIAAC, quite a deal of research is required to be done on this. If the resources are going into education to deal with it at that level, there would be a reduction in the requirement for dealing with it at adult level afterwards. Is that serious research going on to the extent a strategy can be put in place to deal with this anomaly?
I met some of the NALA representatives at the National Ploughing Championships. They made me wear a coloured wig for a photograph with them. That will always be with me.
Ms Inez Bailey:
They made me aware of that prior to my arrival at today's meeting. They said they met Deputy Brendan Ryan at the championships, made him wear a wig and took a photograph of it. Ms Olive Phelan, along with other former literacy students who have now become advocates, does great work trying to explain this issue. There is a counterintuitive piece about the school system. It is not to say that schools are not improving and we have fewer people with severe literacy and numeracy difficulties coming out of schools. However, there is, apparently, some difficulty with the holding on to the attainment level of schools sometime later when people are tested. I go back to my example of the Irish language. We are not saying should we change how we teach Irish. This is about recognising what we can get out of schooling. It is important that everybody going through the education system would be aware of the vulnerabilities of some of the things they are learning, particularly in later life. Evidence suggests that if one is not working in certain places, one is particularly at a disadvantage if not using those skills. In an employment situation where one is doing the same job for 30 years, it might not make much of a difference. However, in employment where people have to go through an information technology revolution and changing jobs, they are having to deploy different levels of skills and competencies all of the time. This seems to be underpinned by the need to keep one's skills up to a certain level all the time.
We suggest that this kind of message needs to go out to people about the importance of continuing to read, knowing how to write and compose letters, even writing online, as well as keeping one's numeracy skills up but in a real-life context. These are the different messages. Whether more can be done, there is no research going on about these disconnects. We have made a submission to the literacy and numeracy strategy for children and young people, which is being reviewed. In it we suggested there is a need to make an explicit link between that strategy and the adult literacy strategy. The review has said that this is possible. However, it needs to think through what further needs to be done in that area.
There is no research. The educational research centres themselves have said this challenging. I presume that gives some indication that they think further research needs to be done.
Ms Olive Phelan:
It was a great mix of age groups. Deputy Brendan Ryan referred to the wigs. They are used to take the stigma out of discussing this issue. We find the wigs allow us to explain what NALA does which allows people bring out their own story. One is always guaranteed that if they have not got problems with literacy, they would know somebody who has. I could write a book about the stories I have heard which are heart breaking. That is what drives me to speak about adult literacy and to reach out to people to take the stigma out of adults coming back to adult literacy classes.
I came back to adult literacy classes seven years ago. I did an intense course of 16 hours a week for eight weeks. That gave me the step-up I needed to get in there with reading, writing and a little bit of computers. I went from a level 1 in writing and spelling up to level 4 but it took years. Now, I do 2.5 hours a week. To put that another way, that is one week in a year. Somebody doing an apprenticeship will get six months to two years to learn a skill. A week in the year is difficult. An adult has other life issues to deal with such as looking after grandchildren or parents. One might not even be able to do those 2.5 hours every week.
My age group would have left school with no IT skills. Now, we have to have IT experience, especially where banks are concerned and other online activities such as dealing with government bodies. Adult literacy is not a choice. People affected must learn to have a good experience in life. Other than that, they are hiding away from society, unless they get these lifelong skills. That is not to say that we are not bringing our lifelong experience with us. We might be the greatest talkers and organisers but we still need the reading, writing and IT skills. It needs to be packaged around the individual’s needs. It is mainly reading and writing and IT skills. Mathematics would be a luxury for many people to go back and learn.
I have come across different examples of adult literacy and how it can lead to better quality of life. I found going back to education had a ripple effect on all aspects of my life. It gave me a much better life, whether it was speaking up or inquiring for myself or my family. Adults need these skills. When manning a NALA stand, I have met young 20 year olds who could not fill out their CVs, when I could tell they were well able to do courses. As they are not able to do the reading and writing for the examinations, they turn their back on a FÁS course they might be doing because they do not want the stigma attached with having problems with their reading and writing.
They are not going to let the person beside them know they have problems with their reading and writing. This applies to late teenagers up to people in their 70s. I have experienced everything in between.
Ms Inez Bailey:
Throughout the period of high unemployment, the Department of Social Protection has invited us to take stands at job fairs. It is very interesting to stand for a day and meet people at a job fair who say they cannot read and write very well, have been unemployed for 12 months and nobody has done anything about it. Coming to us to avail of a two-hour per week intervention will not address their unemployment. It is a very serious issue for people who, on the one hand, are being targeted for labour market activation but on the other hand, do not have the necessary educational supports. The programmes available to them are at a higher level and they are unable to take them up. They either drop out or, as Ms Phelan mentioned, they put up some reason for which they will not engage in the programme. At the fairs, increasingly, people were coming to us and telling us literacy was their problem.
Through the Department of Social Protection's probability of exit from the live register, PEX, profiling, unemployed people are asked whether they have literacy and numeracy needs, and people report that they do. Therefore the Department has the information. However, there is nowhere to send the people. There is a significant gap for unemployed people with literacy and numeracy needs. They are the people who are, increasingly, left in unemployment as the economy recovers.
When people are called in to be asked whether they are working or seeking work and are told they are obliged to find work, it should be suggested that another side of their lives should be improved. As much emphasis should be put on this as on the obligation to get a job.
Ms Inez Bailey:
The Department of Social Protection is aware of it. As part of the PEX interview, on the basis of which a case officer will take on new unemployed people, people are asked whether they have literacy or numeracy difficulties, and they will report it. However, there is not a sufficient response for unemployed people who have those low-level needs. They will not be able to benefit from a MOMENTUM project. When the MOMENTUM scheme was originally envisaged, programmes were targeted at people with low-level needs. Those programmes no longer exist. There are no labour market activation programmes targeted at those very low skilled people. What is available is the existing two-hours per week ETB service.
There is an increasing number of unemployed people in the profile of the adult literacy services participant. The bulk of the people in the literacy services are in the labour force. There are hardly any people aged over 65 in the adult literacy services. The average age of the 35,000 people in the service is 35 years, and they are either working or unemployed. The number who are unemployed is increasing, given that the Department of Social Protection is referring them to the service. However, it will take too long to address their needs. They need a vocational programme that has literacy and numeracy built in and caters for this group. Such a programme does not exist.
I have encountered examples of what Ms Phelan has outlined. Somebody who had been getting in trouble with the Department of Social Protection for failing to participate in a training course came to my clinic to talk to me about it. We contacted the Department, outlined the problem and got him onto a literacy programme. It was probably the short ETB programme, which was probably of no long-term benefit. This is an aspect we could address in terms of trying to provide something at that level in the Department of Social Protection as a response to the PEX profiling. There must be an intensive literacy programme.
Ms Inez Bailey:
It has just come to our attention that JobPath, the major initiative for the long-term unemployed, has no agreed standard of assessment of participants or plan for people who have literacy and numeracy needs. We are not aware that when they join JobPath their literacy and numeracy needs will be assessed.
We will raise these issues, and the specific issue about JobPath. We will write to the Department of Social Protection and we may use the transcript and highlight the relevant parts. We will also write to the Department of Education and Skills and ask about the research that must be carried out regarding the gap identified between the PISA and the PIAAC. We will do it as a follow-up.
While there has not been a great level of attendance by members of the committee, the people who are here are very interested and we will definitely follow it up. We have had a very good, informative engagement. We are very grateful to the witnesses for coming here. I also thank the members for their contributions.
Over the next two weeks, the Select Sub-Committee on Education and Skills will meet to consider Supplementary Estimates for the Department of Social Protection on 1 December and the Department of Education and Skills on 8 December.