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Adult literacy needs patience and investment

20 October 20140 comments
Photographer: Ric Wallis

Photographer: Ric Wallis

Delivering economic benefits by improving reading and writing skills of adults needs time and patience to achieve results, according to new research.

A long-term study of adult literacy in the US has found it can take ten years to see economic outflows sparking calls for the funding of adult literacy to be extricated from the short-term political cycle.

Professor Steve Reder from Portland State University in the US, who headed the investigation, recently presented his findings at a conference in Tasmania.

He said there were several reasons why the economic benefits of improved literacy in the general population were not felt immediately.

“Adult learners may develop new skills for a job but there may not be jobs there right away, so it may take time for those skill gains to be translated into the labour market,” he said.

“Or perhaps the skill gains will qualify them to be successful in further training or further study.”

Employers have reported that two out of every three people applying for an apprenticeship in Australia were functionally illiterate.

The head of Group Training Australia in Tasmania, Geoff Fader, said the rates were staggering but also a concern for work safety.

“The major concern of that is that two out of three people applying for apprenticeships both in Tasmania and across the nation are functionally illiterate and that means they would be a danger to themselves, and to other people in the workforce,” he said.

He said people who lacked basic skills simply had to be turned away.

“No matter how much you would like to employ them, no matter how good their social skills, their manual dexterity, if they don’t have the ability to communicate, to receive and understand knowledge and do basic maths then you simply cannot put them on your staff,” he said.

Professor Reder said that because literacy improvements occurred over the long term, the method of evaluating and funding for adult literacy needed to change.

He said the electoral cycle was too short to be tied to the funding process.

“You’re saying you need to fund something here, but the change you’ll see from doing that is way out here,” he said.

“Politicians naturally tend to think, ‘well I won’t get credit for that, so why should I spend the money?’

“But the problem with that of course is that the money never gets spent, so I think it is tied to political realities.”

Mr Fader said the findings were integral to improving Australia’s labour market.

“It’s the sort of information that should be on the desks and in the head of every senior bureaucrat in education, and senior politicians who have anything to do with education and indeed employment,” he said.

Meanwhile, a researcher in the UK has also called for government action to take a long-term view of the adult literacy and skills gap.

Professor Mary Hamilton, Head of Adult Learning and Literacy at Lancaster University, said adult literacy and numeracy has moved to centre stage internationally with the creation of league tables of achievement from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“The emphasis on literacy and numeracy as basic rights that should be freely supported is a refreshing change from the language of the dubious ‘human capital theory of literacy’, Professor Hamilton said.

A recent UK parliamentary report called for further support for a workplace literacy program.

“In their report, the MPs emphasise the synergies of adult and child literacy through family learning programs instead of treating them as competing sectors. They also recognise the value of flexible access routes for adults and informal starting points for learning,” Professor Hamilton said.

“They re-emphasise the importance of collaboration across government departments and with charities and other third sector organisations who are already developing powerful partnerships to get all children reading well by 11-years-old.

“The strategy is based on the belief that increased literacy skills have an economic pay-off for individuals – and for the country as a whole.

“What have not improved are the inequalities in achievement across the UK population, despite more people entering higher education than ever before. England is one of the most divided nations in Europe with even graduates showing huge variability in assessed basic skills.”

Professor Hamilton said the UK Government had responded not with a practical policy but by setting up this enquiry and by announcing a Behavioural Insights unit to discover “what works” in adult literacy and numeracy.

“In fact we already know a lot about what works,” she said.  Our work has emphasised the role of the cultural and social environment in supporting reading and writing development.

“There is no lack of academic and practical knowledge about how to address the literacy and numeracy needs of the adult population. By comparison, the political will to invest and persist in the longer-term in this area is much more fragile, especially in times of austerity.

“Jobs for low-skilled adults and the demands of communication are continuing to change and grow across our lifespans. We need to adjust our national sights beyond school to understand that the fates of the next generations are bound up with family and community cultures, opportunities in the workplace and our willingness to take adult learning seriously,” Professor Hamilton said.

Cesira Colleluori
AMES Staff Writer