"I couldn't read or write until I was 27 years old"

By Joanne Babbage
Business reporter, BBC News, Crawley

Image caption,
Brian Clissold now reads a book a week and enjoys biographies

On the face of it, 61-year-old Brian Clissold from Brighton has had the kind of life most of us would aspire to.

He has owned companies, sailed on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary 2 and lived in Spain for five years.

But behind the success, Mr Clissold has a secret.

"I couldn't read or write until I was 27," he says.

"It's been a slow process because I've worked all my life and haven't have time to study but I'm getting there now.

"It wasn't until this year that I've been able to read books written for adults.

At the age of 27, Mr Clissold signed up for weekly reading lessons with a doctor's wife in Brighton.

He carried on with the lessons until he started running a hotel at the age of 35.

"I was only able to read Janet and John books, but I stopped seeing her because I was too busy with work," he says.

Mr Clissold remained at this level until last year when, at the age of 60, he decided to learn how to use computers.

He signed up for free IT and literacy Skills for Life courses at the Central Sussex College in Crawley.

As far as he is concerned, he is learning again from scratch.

"They started me off on my ABC's, then capitals and then full stops." he says.

Through a combination of group classes and one-to-one sessions he is now, remarkably, reading a book a week.

"I make sure I read everyday. I like biographies," he says.

"At the moment I'm reading Simon Cowell's, but I'm finding it a bit boring to be honest. The last one, about Prince Charles and Camilla, was pretty good."


Tutors at the college discovered that Mr Clissold is dyslexic, a diagnosis that was not available when he was at school.

"I couldn't speak until I was seven and I was falling back in class," he says.

"The teachers were very cruel. I was told that I would be in and out of prison but I've never been in prison."

After leaving school, he had to take jobs where his lack of literacy skills was not an issue.

"I worked as a night porter in a hotel and then in a casino as a waiter. I couldn't write down the orders so I had to remember them," he says.

"It was very frustrating to see people working in offices, knowing I couldn't do that type of thing."

Mr Clissold feel that his lack of skills have definitely held him back in life.

"I think it took away my youth because I had to survive doing jobs I didn't really want to do," he says.

"Life may have been very different if I'd been able to read and write normally."

'Confidence boost'

Sarah Brown, 37, from East Grinstead, is attending free numeracy classes at the college and is preparing to start a GCSE course in September.

She decided to go back into education after finding it more and more difficult to help her children with their maths homework.

Image caption,
Sarah Brown is working towards a maths GCSE

"When things like times-tables, division and working out areas came up, I didn't know how to work those out," she says.

Although Mrs Brown initially enjoyed studying maths at school, she started to drop down the sets and eventually lost interest in the subject.

"When you're at school you don't want to put your hand up and say 'I don't understand'," she says

"Now I'm quite happy to say I don't get it and I now have the confidence to say it without thinking everyone thinks I'm really stupid."

Improving her numeracy skills has also enabled her to take more control over the running of her child minding business.

"My ability to work out spreadsheets and charts has grown so I don't have to keep running to my husband for his help," she says.

"Working out tax, insurance and overheads is really quite complicated, but I'm increasingly able to work all of those things out for myself."

She is also finding the classes are helping her in all aspects of her everyday life.

"Working out percentages in shops was difficult for me and I'd just make a rough guess. Now I can work out what the actual cost is to me."

Business concerns

Up to seven million workers are estimated to have reading, writing and maths difficulties in the UK, according to research by the Campaign for Learning.

Figures compiled by the charity also suggest that poor basic skills cost UK businesses almost £5bn a year.

Adult basic skills courses came under fire last year for being a waste of money.

According to Professor Anna Vignoles, from the Institute of Education, good basic skills must be learned early in life for people to succeed and that the "array of low-level courses available to adults has not boosted productivity and earnings".

"Adult basic skills training might increase equality of opportunity, but unfortunately it won't boost economic competitiveness," she said at a conference.

A CBI survey released this month, which questioned 694 employers, showed that about half are troubled by their employees' literacy and numeracy skills.

The report also showed that in the past year, a fifth of employers have arranged remedial training in basic skills for young people they have recruited from school or college.

"Employers value staff that have good basic skills, and don't make spelling mistakes in customer letters or put the wrong price on an invoice," says Susan Anderson, CBI director of education and skills.

"The number of low-skilled jobs is shrinking, so if you haven't got those key basic skills you're going to find it difficult to maintain your position in the labour market."

'Hard nut to crack'

"Improving the numeracy skills of adults still creates a particular challenge," says Sue Southwood, programme director for literacy, language and numeracy with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE).

Image caption,
Sue Southwood from NIACE thinks attitudes to numeracy need to change

"People are usually embarrassed by having poor literacy skills, but they aren't so much when it comes to numeracy skills, she says.

"People think it's OK to say they are bad at maths. I think numeracy is a harder nut to crack than literacy," says Ms Southwood.

The charity is conducting a review of the way numeracy is taught to adult learners across the UK. It will present its recommendations to the government later this year.

Despite many changes in the education system, the problem of poor number skills refuses to go away.

Ms Southwood thinks this is because of the way literacy skills are reinforced in other subjects in a way numeracy skills are not.

"In subjects like geography and history you have to write essays and read books. There are fewer opportunities to practice and develop maths skills outside of maths lessons," she says.

She believes we need to fundamentally change the way people view numeracy.

"You need maths to know what time to get up, how long your journey to work will take and how much your lunch will cost," she says.

"If you ask adults they say 'I don't use maths', but they are actually using maths all the time."

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.