Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Adult Literacy: Discussion
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with stakeholders on adult literacy. I apologise that there will be a clash with priority questions to the Minister for Education and Skills. A number of committee members have questions to ask but we hope they will return to the meeting when they have finished.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Cróna Gallagher, director of further education and training at Donegal Education and Training Board, ETB, representing Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI; Ms Inez Bailey, CEO of the National Adult Literary Agency, NALA; and Mr. Phil O'Flaherty, principal officer at the Department of Education and Skills. A number of guests are also sitting in the Public Gallery. I will invite our guests to make a brief opening statement that will be followed by an engagement with members of the committee.
Before I begin, I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If, however, they are directed to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any opening statements they make to the committee will be published on the website after the meeting.
Members are advised of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Ms Gallagher to make her opening statement.
Ms Cróna Gallagher:
On behalf of ETBI, I thank the committee for the opportunity to contribute to its deliberations and discussions on adult literacy. The delivery of literacy programmes by ETBs is guided by the SOLAS further education and training strategy of 2014 to 2019, inclusive, which outlines a framework and implementation plan to support economic development and increase social inclusion. Historically, the term "literacy" was a measurement of reading and writing, but this has evolved a great deal over time. It is now considered in a much broader context and includes, at a minimum, numeracy, as well as digital literacy.
As for the benefits of improving literacy, in addition to improved reading, writing, numeracy and ICT skills, substantial Irish and international research has shown that participation in adult literacy provision has a positive personal and social impact on individuals and communities. Learners from ETB programmes have provided a wealth of evidence on the benefits they have experienced by participating in adult literacy programmes. The ETBI-SOLAS-NALA national adult literacy awareness campaign, which takes place every September, has developed video clips, which are available on takethefirststep.ie. The awareness campaign has proven to be one of the most successful methods of promoting the benefits of returning to education for those with low levels of literacy.
The barriers to participation in further education have been found to include low confidence and self-esteem, negative experiences of education, physical barriers such as childcare and transport, the suitability of courses, and a lack of awareness of further education and training opportunities.
The adult literacy programmes provided by ETBs are primarily focused on learning outcomes at the national framework of qualifications levels 1 to 3, inclusive, with progression options to higher levels, as well as unaccredited options.
The priority cohorts to target for literacy programmes are adults with primary education or less and whose literacy and numeracy skills do not equate to at least level 3 on the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, and adults who may have upper second level education but whose literacy and numeracy skills are still less than or equivalent to NFQ level 3. Within those two cohorts there are individuals and groups who experience particular and acute barriers to participation. Those groups include people who are long-term unemployed, lone parents, Travellers, migrants, older people, people with disabilities, disadvantaged women and men particularly those living in rural isolation, people who are homeless and ex-offenders.
Education and training board, ETB, adult literacy programmes provide a core service of group literacy and numeracy in the main and information and communications technology, ICT, tuition. That provision is available during the daytime and evenings. We also provide family literacy, English for speakers of other languages, ESOL, and skills for work provision for people who are in employment and who have low levels of literacy. Typically, that provision would take place in either further education and training centres belonging to ETBs or community settings. The link to the community is important. Tuition is typically provided to groups ranging between four and eight learners for up to eight hours a week. It includes intensive literacy, a themed literacy option and supports such as study skills and educational guidance. We offer skills assessment to everybody who is coming into the programmes, both accredited and unaccredited. Tuition is then based on what that assessment shows. More recently, we have provided tailored literacy support to apprenticeship programmes because evidence shows many apprentices struggle with the maths and literacy dimensions of their respective apprenticeship programmes. The demand for those supports has risen rapidly in 2019.
Dóibh siúd atá ag iarraidh feabhas a chur ar a gcuid scileanna trí Ghaeilge, tá an togra 'Breacadh' againn agus tá sin lonnaithe i nGaillimh. Déanann an togra sin acmhainní a fhorbairt d'fhoghlaimeoirí agus do theagascóirí.
The programmes are delivered by highly skilled experienced staff who have access to ongoing professional development nationally and locally which includes diversity and other training. The staff would be very conscious and sensitive to the challenges learners with low levels of literacy are experiencing in coming into programmes.
There were 59,000 beneficiaries in adult literacy provision in ETBs in 2018 and there were 58,000 up to the end of 2019. It seems reasonable to assume that more than the number last year will avail of the services this year. ETBs offer an extensive range of programme options. There are group tuition, accredited programmes and themed literacy and digital literacy programmes. We are aware there is a need for accessible and clear information as a driver for people with low levels of literacy and the information would be proofed in terms of plain English. We have open days, information sessions, radio interviews with existing learners, social media usage and so on. We still get many people participating in our programmes through word of mouth and through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We used to get women referring both themselves and men but that has changed slightly. That is as a consequence of groups such as men's sheds and so on.
Lack of childcare supports and easy access to transport, particularly in rural areas, can be barriers to participation. Lack of clarity on Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection benefits and retention of them can also be a barrier. Considerable face-to-face work is required to encourage people both to participate in literacy programmes and to retain people in them, and that is time consuming.
Ms Inez Bailey:
NALA welcomes the committee’s consideration of adult literacy and is grateful for the opportunity to present this afternoon. My presentation has two parts. The first part is concerned with why we continue to have a significant adult literacy issue in Ireland and the second will outline a new approach to be considered for addressing adult literacy needs at this time.
One in six adults, aged 16 to 64, scored at the lowest level of literacy on a five-point scale in the latest survey that was conducted. That means more than 500,000 adults have difficulty reading and understanding a leaflet, bus timetable or medicine instructions. Similarly, one in four scored at the lowest level of numeracy. This equates to more than 750,000 adults not being able to do basic calculations such as dividing up a bill. Literacy and numeracy needs have grave consequences for the individuals concerned and there is much research to paint the relationship between that and poorer health, weak employment and earning potential, less involvement in society as well as intergenerational disadvantage for children and families. It costs our society and economy in both productivity and welfare dependence.
The results for Ireland chime with the profile of educational attainment levels of the workforce, with more than 445,000 people of working age with less than an upper secondary qualification. Ireland has the highest number of 30 to 34 year olds with higher education and among the highest number of older workers without upper secondary education representing a serious intergenerational rupture. It is time to prioritise the furthest behind first.
The 2012 OECD adult skills survey provides the most up-to-date statistics on the adult literacy and numeracy levels of those of working age since the most recent survey was conducted in 1997. Back then, the poor results for Ireland propelled significant action that saw annual increases in participation and resources for the next decade. However since 2009, and despite the very disappointing results of the adult skills survey in 2012, investment and participation rates have stagnated.
The first national skills strategy in 2007 set the target to reduce the numbers of adults with less than upper secondary education to 7%. While school and higher education performance targets were reached or surpassed, we failed to reach the low skills target and the same target was rolled over into the current national skills strategy to be achieved by 2020, and with 17% of those aged 25 to 65 without an upper secondary qualification, this target will clearly not be reached. That fact alone illustrates the inadequacy of the current approach and resources to tackle the scale of both the adult literacy and numeracy issue in Ireland as well as those with low levels of educational attainment. There remains an outdated view that this challenge will fade with time-based school attendance levels. In reality, there is a crisis in the learning outcomes for many in society, both young and old. While acknowledging the contribution of the Department of Education and Skills, Education and Training Boards Ireland and ETBs, which cater for approximately 60,000 participants in their literacy services, this equates to approximately 12% of those with needs and costs less than approximately €600 per person per annum. It is clear we need a better resourced and more co-ordinated effort by Government.
Currently, NALA is working bilaterally with nine Departments and their agencies on policies aimed at building literacy and numeracy competence in a number of areas, including health and finance. This experience, along with similar recent developments to address the adult literacy and numeracy issue in countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Finland and Belgium has guided NALA to call for a whole-of-Government approach that would bring a co-ordinated national effort to radically reducing the numbers of people with literacy and numeracy needs.
Literacy is a barometer of equality and changes people's lives. Ireland can do better to give everyone a fair chance to thrive in their literacy development. This requires investing in people who have not benefited practically at all from our education system during the bust or the boom. This requires greater prioritisation within Government so that we can see an alignment of adult literacy policies and strategies across all Departments.
I thank members for listening. Our written submission has more detail on our vision for literacy.
Mr. Phil O'Flaherty:
I thank the committee for the invitation to take part in this meeting. Good literacy skills equip citizens to participate in education, work and society. The Department of Education and Skills prioritises supporting literacy acquisition both in childhood and throughout adult life. Definitions of "literacy" shift over time but what is consistent is that literacy should be viewed as a continuum. There is not a binary position whereby a person is literate or illiterate. Every person in this room is placed somewhere along the literacy continuum. Literacy is also not fixed. Like any skill, it must be used to be maintained. Conceptions of literacy are broadening to include areas such as digital literacy, financial literacy, health literacy and media literacy.
To have good literacy skills, a person must be able to apply them in a range of situations and to a range of texts and media.
As members will know, on the whole, children in Ireland perform very well in international surveys of literacy but the position for the adult population is somewhat less positive. Ireland participated in the first round of the OECD's programme for the international assessment of adult competencies, PIAAC, survey in 2011 and 2012, as Ms Bailey has outlined, which was undertaken to provide data on key adult skills, namely, literacy, numeracy and the somewhat inelegantly titled problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The survey found that, on the literacy scale, Irish adults achieved around the survey average, placing it 19 out of the 34 countries that have participated to date. The distribution of performance in Ireland across the population was more even than in many countries. This means that it has relatively fewer people at the lowest and highest levels of the scale. Just under 18% of Irish adults scored at or below level 1 on the survey, which was an improvement from the 22% who scored at those levels in a comparable international survey undertaken in the 1990s.
The further education and training, FET, sector offers a wide range of courses, primarily through the 16 ETBs designed to lead to greater social inclusion, high quality skills supply for the economy and progression opportunities within education. For some people, difficulties with literacy or numeracy can present a real obstacle to further learning. A key central aim of FET policies and strategies is to ensure that programmes and services are accessible to all learners. The FET strategy for 2014 to 2019 prioritises literacy and numeracy supports, both through the delivery of dedicated adult literacy courses and through supporting the literacy of all learners who engage with further education and training. Targets are set for the ETBs in this area through their strategic performance agreements and planning frameworks with SOLAS. More than €800 million is invested annually in the FET sector. Literacy and numeracy are key components of all FET programmes. Transversal skills, such as literacy and numeracy, form part of the Quality and Qualification Ireland, QQI, award standards in the FET sector and support for best practice regarding integrating literacy and numeracy in broader FET programmes is set out in the SOLAS report, Integrating Literacy & Numeracy. Within the overall investment in FET, approximately €35 million is spent annually on dedicated adult literacy programmes. As the committee has heard, over 6,000 people participate in those programmes annually. An important task of the adult literacy service through its English for speakers of other languages, ESOL, provision is to welcome and support a diverse cohort of "new Irish" people. These new community members in Ireland come from a wide range of cultural, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds and the ETBs design and deliver programmes tailored to their needs.
Building on the substantial level of adult literacy and numeracy education already delivered in the FET sector, the Government has focused increasingly in recent years on the needs of vulnerable people in employment. Initiatives such as Skills to Advance and the EXPLORE programme offer targeted support for employees in lower-skilled jobs who need to adapt to a changing work environment. These initiatives are also a significant part of the Department of Education and Skills national effort to implement the European Commission's upskilling pathways recommendation, which aims to help adults acquire a minimum level of literacy, numeracy and digital skills. I thank the committee for its attention and I look forward to its questions.
I thank all our guests for their presentations. It strikes me that one of the appendices supplied by the National Adult Literacy Agency lists the nine Departments involved with adult literacy. This committee deals with education and skills. It is a very important matter.
The figure of approximately €600 per person per annum was given in respect of working with somebody and improving his or her literacy. Is there a figure for what it costs the State if there are 750,000 people with numeracy problems? What is the cost of not having people at a certain level of literacy and numeracy? Health has been mentioned, along with being able to engage with politics and the education system. This has a detrimental effect on society. Could we flip the conversation and look at the cost to the State of people not having literacy and numeracy skills rather than how much it costs to provide the service?
Is there less awareness and understanding of learning difficulties relating to numeracy and dyscalculia and a resistance to acknowledge this within the education sector? I know at leaving certificate level there are no extra points or allowances if a person has dyscalculia. I could be corrected but, as far as I am aware, Trinity is the only university that gives a maths waiver. Have our guests come across many people with undiagnosed dyscalculia and is there a lack of a real will to address it as a learning difficulty?
We have heard that children achieve certain scores and there is a big gap when we consider adult scores. Adults have different types of engagement than children. A young person in sixth year may want to attend university but the parents may not be from a professional background or have the same level of literacy. They may not have the literacy to navigate a system of application forms for colleges and points or SUSI applications. Sometimes that level of literacy might be completely missing within the family; it would not matter if there is a high level of literacy in children because they would not engage with that type of literature anyway. What impact does this have on a child who may have scored highly in literacy throughout school? What type of impact does an intergenerational literacy deficit have within the family?
I am not a member of this committee but I am a member of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There is a clear overlap. Ms Gallagher indicated that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is both the path of referral and there may be anxiety about a lack of clarity with respect to the retention of benefits. The committee of which I am a member has had much discussion about how to ensure people are given literacy or educational options when they are in contact with employment services. For example, people may have much anxiety if they are put through the JobPath scheme or they be concerned about losing entitlements. What does a positive or negative invitation to engage with these services look like? How do we ensure that people who may have literacy issues are being identified either by Intreo, the Department or JobPath in order that literacy needs can be addressed rather than a person being moved to a low-skilled job, for example, while he or she still has literacy and numeracy issues that have not been dealt with?
I have a question on pathways that could be addressed to any of the witnesses but particularly Mr. O'Flaherty as he spoke of further education and training. I know many people go to citizen information services when they do not feel they can access information online or understand leaflets. Could citizen information services be potential referral pathways to identify people who may have needs and supports? The figure of 12% of those in need being addressed has been mentioned. Will our guests comment on where they feel resources need to be allocated most in order to achieve the 7% target for people having a secondary education from the current figure of 17%? Is there a flexibility in those schemes? Are they part-time or full-time? What kind of commitment do they require if people are working or managing care needs? Are the schemes working in bringing people who may be harder to reach into the process?
I was struck by the comment about reading a leaflet and the lowest points of literacy. Many people become aware of literacy issues when they fail some bureaucratic test in not getting a form back in time or losing a hospital appointment. Should there be a flagging system when these literacy problems are encountered so that people can be directed to support?
That is instead of just losing out, which is what happens, certainly in terms of people trying to navigate social welfare.
It is useful to have Senator Higgins here in light of her experience with the other committee. There is obviously an interrelation between different Departments and committees. I wish to add some questions. I have a question for Ms Gallagher on the issue of people who are hard to reach. How do we bring in people who clearly will have difficulty with or a fear of engaging with various services, and difficulty in acknowledging and recognising the issues they have? Ms Gallagher mentioned people coming in through the Men's Sheds, which is an interesting way, and also through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. What we would really like to get to in this committee is how we can improve opportunities and access for people who have difficulty with literacy. That is my first issue.
Second, Mr. O'Flaherty talked about Ireland's score in the PIAAC survey, which is not great as we are 19th out of 34. Ms Bailey talked about the national skills strategy and the targets therein. Will she expand on the aims within the national skills strategy, the percentages and what we need to do to reach the targets in the national skills strategy up to 2025? We need to be able to measure where we are going and what we are achieving, and how to get to the point we want to get to, where literacy is not a struggle for so many people.
Third, I want to ask Ms Bailey about the issue of struggling with language, to which Senator Higgins referred, for example, the difficulty of facing bureaucracy, etc. Ms Bailey's organisation has been campaigning for the use of plain language for a long time, so she might respond in regard to the difficulties people face, given the language used by bureaucracy, and what progress is being made.
I ask Ms Gallagher to respond first.
Ms Cróna Gallagher:
I am not sure if I got all of the questions but a number of them overlap to some extent. With regard to how to bring in people, in our experience, people need to want to come in. Very often, people come in when they are at a turning point in their lives or when there is some crisis that precipitates that engagement. It could be something personal, for example, the break-up of a relationship, a divorce or something like that, where the other partner has been doing all of the paperwork. People often come in when their children start school and they realise their six-year old is galloping past them in terms of literacy. It could be something like progression at work, where they realise they would like to apply for promotion and they cannot do that. It has to reach a particular point before people want to come in.
We get referrals in all sorts of ways and we do all sorts of things ourselves in terms of social media, open days and liaising with community groups, which is very important. Community groups tend to know the people who may have difficulties with literacy. ETBs are very good at having a reach into communities, which is a very important part of what we do. It is about trying lots of different ways. There is no one easy way.
The other thing is that just because they come in once, it does not mean they are going to stay. They might come in to get some information but that might be the end of it, so we need to follow that up and have lots of engagement with them. That is time consuming and costly. There is no quick win, and that is what we have learned over the years. It is time consuming and costly to engage people who have low levels of literacy.
To give an example, ETBs have memorandums of understanding with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Reference was made to JobPath. Our experience is that JobPath refers people into the literacy programmes and we would spend a lot of time working with community stakeholders, statutory stakeholders, partnership companies and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There are myriad ways in which people engage with us.
Ms Inez Bailey:
I want to go back to the first question on costs. PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, was commissioned to estimate the cost to the Netherlands economy in regard to its literacy and numeracy problems among the adult population, which would be far lower than the Irish context, and it estimated a cost of €1.3 billion in 2018.
Ms Inez Bailey:
Yes. PwC was effectively the first non-education-based entity to apply a methodology to coming up with that figure and, consequently, that has driven huge investment across the Dutch Government and a number of its Departments, so it is not just the Dutch Department of Education, though it is playing the leading role, but a total of four Government Departments combining resources to address the issue in the Netherlands currently. It is an interesting comparison, considering the economy of the Netherlands in comparison to Ireland, but it is also taking place in a number of other countries as well. There is a kind of shift in terms of what needs to be done about this issue at a higher level.
In terms of numeracy, we have lower levels of awareness that there is something about numeracy impeding one's life, and certainly fewer people enter into services looking for numeracy support. In the context of what used to be called dyscalculia and was sometimes called dyscalculia, one of the issues is that, in order to get a diagnosis, people need to go to an educational psychologist. However, even if they get a diagnosis, this does not provide them with any additional supports. Many children are diagnosed with it. This does make a difference in terms of how they might learn. We find many parents are struggling with children who perhaps have that diagnosis but the parents do not necessarily know how to support them, and the children probably have a negative attitude to maths from a very young age, or that is our experience. We believe there is a usefulness in putting attention on numeracy as a subject in its own right, and perhaps there could be an awareness campaign specifically around this and around helping people to see how relatively important it is in one's life, and also that there are ways to do something about it.
With regard to the PISA-OECD test and the PIAAC tests, effectively, one is a test done in school when children are 15, so they are in an environment where they are used to sitting tests, whereas the PIAAC is based on taking a series of tests over the course of one hour when the adults involved are not used to being put through that format. They are effectively tests of real-life examples that would use people's literacy and numeracy skills. We would contend that despite the PISA scores, however high they might be, the gains are not being held as people become adults, given we now have people who are surveyed in PIAAC who would have been the population that was surveyed in the early stages of PISA. The OECD and, from what we can work out, all of the other stakeholders cannot explain why we have those two differences. It is, at least, cause for concern that it would not appear we are holding the gains that we have taken comfort from in the PISA tests in regard to the adult process.
There is obviously an issue with the assessment of PISA in regard to how children are assessed because they are being assessed literally regarding what they are learning or what type of literature they are engaging with, rather than literacy in the broader sense.
Ms Inez Bailey:
Not necessarily. The cultural context is that they are sitting tests all the time, so sitting this test is not something that is abnormal to them in a school environment, whereas if they have to be randomly selected from the population to sit through an hour-long test, that gives us a better indication of whether a 25 year old has a good level of literacy, as opposed to what he or she did when he or she was 15. They are not the same tests and it is not the same environment, but it is concerning that they are not holding the strong performance. There is a sense that the PIAAC data showed us as being below the EU and OECD average. I do not think that is a place we should be happy with, yet the gains over 17 years between the two surveys were very small.
In fact, it was statistically negligible, according to the CSO. There has been a sense that the PIAAC was not too bad but we would perhaps be putting forward the message that it is very concerning to be that far down by comparison with European countries that did better than us and that are taking this more seriously. That is the current situation.
The PEC system scoring in the Department of Employment and Social Protection includes people identifying whether they have a literacy or numeracy issue. There is self-identification. We are aware that the Department knows how many self-identify as having a literacy or numeracy issue when they are put through the PEC system and end up with a score. Our agency has certainly supported the Department in examining the number of people who have identified themselves as having a literacy and numeracy issue and in ensuring they are getting support to address it while there are on the Department's books.
With regard to citizen information, we have done quite a bit of work on awareness training of staff to ensure staff in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the citizens information service are aware of how to detect and refer an individual sensitively. They say they get many people who have difficulty understanding the forms and filling them out. I will come to that in a second.
On the proportion of 7%, we are not necessarily completely equating people with literacy and numeracy difficulties with people who have low educational attainment but we are aware there is a strong correlation. We set the target to bring the proportion down to 7% in 2007. We still have the same target in 2019 and we are not going to reach, which is concerning. That is not a PIAAC-PISA argument. It reflects people's educational attainment levels. There are many in the cohort - almost 500,000 - who do not have upper secondary qualifications and who are in the labour force. Over the period in question, why have we not closed the gap? Admittedly, we had a lot more resources in the noughties but it is now 2019 and will not have reached the target by 2020. It is not 7% to be achieved in 2025; it is 7% to be achieved in 2020, with a new target to be set after that. Where people have a difficulty, they must be made aware that there is support available. Where staff are coming across people with difficulties, we are trying to do awareness training with them so they can make referrals. There is a good relationship and understanding that the ETBs across the country are available to support people.
With regard to language struggle, we live in a very dense information age. A great volume of information is thrust upon people and they are dependent on their individual skills to analyse it and act on it, not only in terms of their own benefits but also in terms of everything else they might do in their lives. In this regard, we mentioned the issue of them supporting their children in accessing higher education. We receive many calls from people having difficulty supporting their children in second level education and accessing supports. We are very much advocating a plain English Bill. I believe it is being considered on Second Stage. Good practice is being volunteered by organisations but it is not consistent practice. It should be mandatory across public information providers. That is what we advocate.
Mr. Phil O'Flaherty:
My colleagues have answered many of the questions raised. Let me address the point on the 7% target. Ms Bailey is correct in that it will not be reached. In quarter 4 last year, the figure was 11.8%. It was 14.6% in quarter 4 of 2014. It is, therefore, moving in the right direction but the target will not be reached.
The difference between the PIAAC figures and the target figure of the national skills strategy is that the latter relates to formal educational qualifications. To move towards the 7% target, people need to get qualifications at upper secondary level. That involves formal, certified provision. This matter is somewhat distinct from the questions on the adult literacy service. Many of the qualifications in this regard are certified, but at lower levels. The education is mostly part-time, which helps a lot in accessibility and availability. It is delivered across a broad range of providers at community level and by ETBs. It is very good in terms of ease of access but, to move towards formal educational qualification attainment at upper secondary level, there is a need to move on to different types of programmes. The question of converting engagement in lower-intensity adult literacy programmes into engagement in formal education is an issue. That probably speaks to the theme of the level of co-ordination on the ground, as raised by Ms Bailey and committee members. As Ms Gallagher outlined, there are some good formal link-ups between the Department of Employment and Social Protection, Intreo offices and ETBs through formal memorandums of understanding.
There is an improved story since the creation of the ETBs. Many disparate parts of further and adult education and training were brought together under the roof of a single agency. We are seeing more of the literacy services supporting learners on other further education and training programmes. There is a better connection within the ETBs. There is an improvement in respect of engagement with the Departments of Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection but the same formality does not exist in regard to the entire range of other services. There is probably a way to go in that respect. The new further education and training strategy will address that link-up.
When we hear that 450,000 people have an education at a level lower than lower secondary level, we must remember that, given the unemployment level is thankfully quite low, many of them are in employment. That is positive in the overall sense but it challenges the model of delivery by ETBs of adult education provision because they are well linked in with community groups and many of the services. Many in employment are not accessing those sorts of services, however.
If Mr. O'Flaherty were to stay and listen to the witnesses in the next session, he would understand why it is not good. Those with low literacy skills and low educational attainment in the jobs market will be the first to lose their jobs to those with digital literacy and to automation. It is not good that this is where people are when literacy levels are so low.
Mr. Phil O'Flaherty:
Yes, that is exactly it. That is what I was going to go on to say. People must be reached in the workplace. There is a question about work in the first instance. The Senator raised the issue of people moving into vulnerable employment without necessarily having their skills needs addressed. If people are in employment, however, it behoves us to also reach them in the workplace. Some of this involves working through employers. The skills to advance initiative does a lot of that. Let us be clear that some employers are not necessarily enormously committed to the development of the literacy of their workforce if they do not see an immediate payoff in terms of what is happening on the job. ETBs and other groups, therefore, need to reach the workers directly, not just through employers.
Mr. Phil O'Flaherty:
Unions have been active for a long time in delivering education and training, everything from hobby-type programmes all the way up to more formal programmes. Part of the issue is that union penetration in some of these sectors is quite patchy. This year, for the first time, €11 million has gone into the skills to advance initiative. Another €6.9 million allocation was announced in the recent budget. Our capacity to address this is increasing but it is still a significant story. According to the EU statistics on lifelong learning, Ireland is just above the EU average as a whole. The area in which we perform comparatively worse is people who are in employment. It is an important area to pay attention to but we must not lose focus on those who are not employed.
Ms Inez Bailey:
We are one of the few economies in Europe that does not have paid educational leave or some sort of statutory basis upon which people could be entitled to support for learning while they are in the workforce. In particular, where we are talking about those who are the furthest behind, there is a strong case for a statutory entitlement for people who have less than a particular attainment level, if we were going to be restrictive in an intervention. We are one of the few countries that does not have anything at all. That has become a problem. Regarding the lifelong learning ratio, we have the highest percentage of young people with higher education. They comprise the bulk of those engaging in lifelong learning. Those aged over 35 and with the lowest level of educational attainment are not in evidence at all in our lifelong learning statistics. There seems to be a perfect storm with this group, which is why we have not been making the inroads that we would like. From our perspective, this requires new thinking, a new approach and a co-ordinated effort to lift them, ideally once and for all, as opposed to leaving them as a cohort.
Ms Cróna Gallagher:
In my view the literacy services have improved dramatically over the last 20 years. While the numbers are not what they should be, the quality of the service is much better. Twenty years ago there were people on unaccredited courses; nobody knew how they were progressing or what their levels were. There has been a lot of development work. For example, most of the tuition is now group tuition whereas we had a volunteer literacy service 20 years ago. It is important to mention that. Most people are doing accredited courses. There is room always for unaccredited courses, for example in family learning and so on, but that is there. The other factor that has served to reduce the stigma of literacy programmes is the fact that we are doing ICT courses. There is no stigma attached to somebody saying, "I am hopeless at computers", whereas it is quite different if one cannot read and write. The tutors are very skilled and can build literacy into those programmes. When the learner is confident and comfortable, they can also refer them to other literacy programmes. The quality has improved a lot.
I thank Ms Gallagher. Her comments lead us into our next session, which is on digital literacy among adults. The witnesses have certainly given us food for thought and have raised proposals and issues that we may need to follow up on. It has been very interesting and may lead to us wanting to do some more work in this area. I thank all three witnesses for their presentations. I propose that we suspend to allow the next group of witnesses to take their seats.