Headlines in the Sun and Mail trumpeted that one in five adults struggled to read or write, so Channel 4 FactCheck
checked out their claims that 8 million British adults were illiterate.
So what did FactCheck and FullFact discover?
1 The articles originated from a report published by the World Literacy Foundation (WLF) which was based on an International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) done in 1996.
2 The 8 million figure used by WLF had its source in an article published by an entrant to a writing competition held by BBC Northampton in 2005. This had also cited IALS.
3 IALS had found that 21.8% of Brits struggled with literacy (one in five). However, these were not functionally illiterate but at the lower end of the statistical bell curve.
4 WLF were heavily promoting the World Literacy Summit in April 2012 in Oxford. This comprised more entrepreneurial figures than academics. Registration fees were £1,345. Few leading British academics were attending.
5 The latest “Skills for Life” survey published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) estimated there were 5.1 million adults (aged 16-65) below Level 1 in Literacy. Dr Jan Eldred, chair of the UK Literacy Working Group, said these people, who comprised 14.9% of the adult population in England, were not necessarily illiterate – they were at the lower end of the skills curve and many would have a learning disability like dyslexia. It was wrong to say that Britain was in the middle of an educational crisis.
FactCheck concluded that it would be fairer to say “More than 15 years ago, 21 per cent of a small sample of people were found to be at the lower end of the scale of literacy, according to a questionable piece of research”.
Rhetoric about the “scandal” of literacy rates in Britain regularly fills the papers. The recent Riots Report
suggested fining schools where children didn’t meet “age-appropriate” reading standards. It is essential, therefore, that there is an agreed definition of functional illiteracy to prevent politicians and the media, either deliberately or through ignorance, from inflating the figures
for poor literacy and implying that anything below a GCSE grade C is a sign of being unable to read or write sufficiently to cope with everyday life.
The Sun’s article
was accompanied by a picture of a young woman reading a book (the article was not on Page 3). The book was “The Cities of Seleukid Syria” by John D Grainger, “the first detailed study of the foundation, history, government, growth and decline of the cities founded in Syria by Seleukos I in 301BC shortly after the time of Alexander the Great.” If this academic tome is a sign of literacy, how long will it be before Mr Gove lists Grainger as essential reading in Key Stage 2?