Dáil debates

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Adjournment Debate

Literacy Levels.

9:00 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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"Written Off" is a series I have watched over the past number of weeks. It was a joint project between RTE and the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, and it was well worth watching. It followed the lives of 11 Irish adults aged between 17 and 50 as they attended an intensive eight-week course. These people came from different parts of the country and from very different backgrounds. The one thing they all had in common was that they all had difficulties with reading and writing and the series, which was the first of its kind in Ireland, followed their progress as they returned to education and faced the challenge of learning to read and write as an adult. It also followed the highs and lows that this challenge brought, as well as the new friendships they made over the eight-week course.

I watched this series with great interest because it struck a chord with my own brush with adult literacy. I was one of the many who left school at 14 not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I was pushed out the door because I was one of 56 in the class and I was not a "A" or a "B" student. After leaving school, I started work in a small family printing firm, where it occurred to my boss that maybe I had something to offer. He sent me to do a course in typing at night and that is where my education began. I was one of the lucky ones. I am still not the best speller in the class but I have learned invaluable life skills along the way.

In Ireland today, the problem of illiteracy, especially among adults, is more common than we might think. Agencies and organisations work to help people with this problem but the first and most important hurdle is for people to admit they have difficulties reading and writing. NALA was established in 1980 and since 1985 it has received funding to run a national office. It offers advisory services in adult literacy work and the agency has done great work in highlighting the adult literacy problem in the State. However, more can and should be done to highlight the extent of the problem, to provide extended support services and to encourage people back into education.

According to NALA, more than 28,000 people participate in VEC adult literacy programmes across Ireland. This is a fourfold increase since 1997, when 5,000 people attended literacy services. However, this is less than 5% of adults who experience literacy difficulties. What about all the others who slip under the radar because, according to them, the services are not available? This is where the problem lies. A large number of illiterate people do not want anyone to know they cannot read or write and, therefore, they never obtain the help they need. Incredibly, the most recent statistics the Department of Education and Science can provide on illiteracy date back to 1995 when approximately 25% of Irish adults aged between 16 and 64 were at level one, the lowest literacy level. The Department assures us that the position has improved since then, but there is no proof of this.

Although Ireland has experienced a huge surge in wealth in recent years, the level of illiteracy remains worryingly high. According to the latest international survey, approximately 500,000 Irish adults have problems with basic reading, writing and mathematics. Illiteracy can affect all strands of society, not just the marginalised. Almost 30% of the workforce has only attained the junior certificate or lower, while a staggering 10% has only primary level or no formal qualification at all. Furthermore, 25% of adults still lack basic skills in literacy and numeracy. It is, therefore, vital that we put in place every support to encourage people to return to education, no matter their age. The problem is people can be reluctant to admit they cannot read or write and feel a stigma attaches to being illiterate.

Adult learning is an excellent resource and needs to be fully supported by the Government and the Department of Education and Science. Last week, I had the privilege of presenting 20 FETAC awards to young people who had left school. Their enthusiasm showed on their faces. I told them that it was only their first step and that I hoped they would continue to learn. To reach one's potential, one must learn. I ask the Minister of State for his support.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. As the Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning, I am aware of the importance of adult literacy. The acquisition of adequate literacy skills is necessary for adults to derive benefit from any education or training courses in which they want or need to engage. Adult literacy, in addition to reading and writing, extends to such basic education as numeracy, social and personal development, learning to learn and IT skills. In the modern context, adult literacy is as much about an individual's self-esteem and confidence as it is about the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic. Literacy in all its guises enables an individual to participate more fully in society, to contribute more in relationships, both personal and professional, and to make the most of himself or herself in our competitive, globalised economy.

In concrete terms, funding for adult literacy has increased from €1 million in 1997 to €30 million in 2007. This has increased participation in literacy tuition from 8,000 learners in 1997 to 44,000 in 2007. Targets in the national development plan have consistently been met or exceeded. Under Towards 2016, an extra 7,000 places are to be provided during the period 2007-09. Some 3,000 of these were allocated in 2007 and provision has been made for a further 500 in 2008. Adult literacy also features prominently in the national action plan for social inclusion and the programme for Government.

Ireland is participating in the feasibility study for a new OECD survey, the programme for the international assessment of adult competencies, which will survey adults between the ages of 16 years and 64 years in their homes on a range of skills covering their interest, attitude and capacity to access, manage, understand, integrate and evaluate various types of information as well as to respond and communicate with others in the information age. Participation in the survey will be decided after the results of the feasibility study.

My Department supports a number of other initiatives in the field of adult literacy, not least of which is part-funding the television series "Written Off". My Department has part-funded a number of television series organised by NALA over the years with the express aim of increasing awareness of adult literacy and encouraging individuals to participate in adult literacy classes or initiatives. I am glad to report that this series is proving just as successful as its predecessors in these aims and I would like to commend NALA on its work in this area. Hopefully, the example set by the courageous learners featured in the series will serve as an inspiration to individuals in a similar situation. As the Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning, I attended the programme's formal launch and had the pleasure of meeting its participants. I agree with the Deputy that they are inspirational.

The delivering equality of opportunity in schools action plan, DEIS, has seen the extension of literacy and numeracy programmes and the commencement of a family literacy project that addresses literacy from the intergenerational perspective. The key principle of early intervention underpins many of the initiatives being adopted under DEIS. My Department also funds the intensive tuition in adult basic education programme, ITABE, which provides up to six hours of tuition per week to learners instead of the normal two hours. As well as these initiatives, literacy tuition is available under the back to education initiative through which funds are also made available to community education programmes.

There are specially targeted literacy programmes for those in need of particular literacy services, for example, deaf people, people with dyslexia and native Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas. There are a number of workplace literacy and basic education schemes in operation around the country, such as the return to learning scheme for local authority outdoor staff nationwide and the FÁS-VEC return to education scheme for participants on the community employment scheme operated by FÁS.

I would like to reiterate my Department's commitment to addressing the issue of adult literacy to enable all people, particularly the low-skilled and disadvantaged, to participate as fully as possible in our modern, globalised society and economy.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 June 2008.