BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014

BBC Homepage
»BBC Local
Things to do
People & Places
Religion & Ethics
Arts and Culture
BBC Introducing
TV & Radio

Sites near Northampton

Beds Herts Bucks

Related BBC Sites


Contact Us

Write '05

The effect the eight million illiterate adults on the UK

By Becky Woosey from Northampton


There are currently concerns about the illiteracy levels of the world population. In fact the literacy rates have increased steadily over the past few decades, although most of these changes have been seen in third world countries rather than the Western Cultures.  There are currently 67 million adults living the UK, 8 million of which are considered to be functionally illiterate.  Figures for this year show that 18.2% of the world population is illiterate; which works out at 810,879 billion people! This means that more than 12 million times the UK adult population are unable not just to read and write, but also have an inability to locate, evaluate, use, and communicate using a wide range of resources including text, visual, audio, and video sources. The concept of "functional literacy" means that an individual can read and have sufficient numeric skills to function within a society.  In a recent study it was discovered that one in seven school leavers didn't have the necessary literacy skills demanded in the work place.

Reasons for Illiteracy in the UK

There are many reasons why adults may be illiterate.  The most likely reason for low levels of literacy is due to lack of education, for example if a child left school before 16 and did not finish their education. Another reason for adult illiteracy is if a parent can't read and takes no interest in their child’s / children’s education, for example never making them do their homework or encouraging reading, writing or mathematics outside of school hours will have a negative effect in later years. Some people may want to learn at school but find that they struggle with the work that is set. Conditions such as dyslexia can occasionally go undetected and it is just assumed that these people are thick, when in fact they have a genuine reason that requires special attention if it is to be dealt with successfully.  There are also refugees and illegal immigrants who contribute to the final percentage, who may not have been fortunate enough in their home country to receive a good standard of education, if any. Britain has the fourth highest level of unemployment among people with the poorest modern literacy skills. The study, based on those between 16 and 65, finds links between excessive TV viewing and poor literacy skills: "Analysis of the data has shown that literacy skills are positively related to people's daily reading practices and negatively related to the amount of television they watch," is a key excerpt from the study’s report. The study also suggests that those with good literacy skills are paid better and live longer, due to being able to acquire a higher standard of living.

Problems living with Illiteracy in the UK

There are many obstacles facing those who are functionally illiterate, varying from day to day obstructions to huge dilemmas. Literacy aids the provision of healthcare in a number of very practical ways (ability to read prescriptions and understand doctors conclusions are two common examples of this).  Imagine going to a restaurant and not being able to read the menu or not being able to read a bus timetable. On the other end of the scale you would not be able to take a driving test as you would be required to read a license plate and you would need to get someone to fill in a job application form for you. It seriously limits your job prospects as minimum entry requirements ask for a C grade at GCSE in Maths and English.

Costs of Illiteracy in the UK

The cost of illiteracy in increased participation in welfare programs and unemployment compensation is estimated to be $6 billion (£3 billion) a year in the USA, whereas in the UK illiteracy costs businesses and the government £10 billion a year. A report followed an announcement last year that the government will give £2.3m to 64 adult education projects in England.  Grants ranging from £3,000 to £147,000 will go to a wide range of schemes - from community radio stations to developing materials which will encourage fathers to read with their children.  Many of the projects aim to improve adults' basic literacy and numeric skills, and as a consequence make them more employable. They are the first beneficiaries of the Adult and Community Learning Fund, launched last August, which will see a total of £15m being spent over the next three years.

Some Facts and Figures

In Britain the figure is over 20%, i.e. eight million people are so bad at reading and writing that they cannot cope with the demands of modern life.

The report found that people in Britain are less able to work out sales bargains, follow a recipe or use loan interest charts than those in most of the other surveyed countries.

One in five adults in Britain has very poor literacy standards. 3,800 people aged between 16 and 65, who had been educated in Britain, were tested, and the results indicated that about 8.4 million Britons of working age (22%) are incapable of comparing and contrasting two pieces of information; a similar number being unable to fill in a form correctly.

A council-by-council breakdown shows the worst problems to be in London, the North-west and the North-east, but even across the middle of England up to a third of the population need help with basic maths and up to 13% with reading.

The UK is ranked 14th out of 20 in a list charting the percentage of 16 to 65-year-olds who read a book at least once a month.

What help is available

The government is taking steps to improve the situation. Classes to teach adults basic skills, including how to read the phone book and check their change in shops, have been launched.  One example of a scheme previously launched is The Priory Primary School in Dudley, West Midlands; they recruited parents to help in the libraries and classrooms in an area of high unemployment and multiple deprivation. Many parents joined adult education and Open College Certificates were awarded to credit skills as classroom assistants. Other adults signed up, and community education has flourished. Unemployment has fallen significantly and other social gains have been accrued through new learning clubs. The Priory was given a National Training Award for adult community education last year.

There are plenty of other places where you can go to get help if you know someone with literacy problems.  Try either of the following websites:

last updated: 11/02/05
Go to the top of the page

BBC News
Disk of patient records 'missing'
EMAS chief executive Sue Noyes An NHS trust loses a computer disk containing 42,000 records of East Midlands Ambulance Service patients from its headquarters.

BBC Radio Northampton
Listen to the latest bulletin

Look East - East Midlands today
Monday to Friday at 13:30, 18:30 & 22:25
Watch Look East
Watch East Midlands Today
How to download RealPlayer.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy