Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy

09 December 2009

Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr Kieran Donnelly, today issued his report to the Assembly on ‘Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy’. Within Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning is charged with improving the essential skills of literacy and numeracy among the adult population. Between 2002 and 2009, some £40 million had been spent on the programme.


An International Adult Literacy Survey, carried out in 1996, showed that around 1 in 4 (some 250,000) people of working age in Northern Ireland had levels of literacy and numeracy below those expected of school leavers. For individuals, the impact can be profound. Research has shown, for example, that they are four times more likely to be unemployed; if they do have a job, it is more likely to be low-skilled and low-paid; and they are more likely to suffer from ill-health and to be in poor housing. Improving literacy and numeracy skills can deliver a range of benefits, including increased confidence and employability and a much greater engagement with society.

Main Findings

The Audit Office’s main findings were:

On the scale and nature of the problem in Northern Ireland (Part 2 of the Report)

  • The 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey estimated that 24 per cent of adults in Northern Ireland had only the most basic literacy skills. This compared with the United Kingdom as a whole at 22 per cent.
  • The unemployed and the economically inactive represented the majority of those with the most basic skills.
  • There has been no objective assessment of literacy and numeracy skills in Northern Ireland since the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey. However, in November 2008, the Department decided that it will participate in the next Survey in 2011, with results being available in 2013. An interim measure to assess the impact of the current strategy and inform policy direction is currently being researched.
  • The Department of Education has reported that some 4,000 young people each year leave compulsory education without the appropriate basic literacy and numeracy skills.

On Strategies for raising adult literacy and numeracy (Part 3 of the Report)

  • The Department’s “Essential Skills for Living” strategy was introduced in October 2002 as a response to the International Survey’s findings.
  • The strategy addresses issues of capacity and quality as well as the approach to engaging with adult learners.

On reaching more learners and increasing participation (Part 4 of the Report)

  • Since April 2003, adult literacy and numeracy provision was promoted through the UK-wide “Gremlins” campaign, but this has been replaced by a locally-orientated campaign from September 2008.
  • The Workers’ Educational Association, the Educational Guidance Service for Adults and various community-based groups have all played roles in engaging with, and providing courses for, diverse groups of learners in community settings.
  • From September 2008, Further Education colleges began piloting the new ‘Learner Access and Engagement’ policy. The new arrangements place Further Education colleges in the role of principal course providers, with the voluntary and community sectors operating in an engagement and support role. The pilot extends to all Further Education colleges and will run for a three-year period, to 2011.

On achievements and costs (Part 5 of the Report)

  • Between October 2002 and July 2009, just over 54,000 people enrolled in Essential Skills courses and, of these, over 34,000 people achieved one or more Essential Skills qualifications. Overall, there were some 97,000 course enrolments (people can enrol in more than one class), resulting in almost 57,000 recognised qualifications.
  • An evaluation of the “Essential Skills for Living” strategy, published in 2006, was largely positive but pointed to the need to make greater impact with employers and the hardest-to-reach groups.
  • A total of £40 million was spent on the Essential Skills programme over the seven years to March 2009 and a further £30 million is budgeted over the next two years.

The Department has welcomed the Audit Office’s report, which it sees as confirming the need for innovation and engagement with the diverse groups impacted by poor literacy and numeracy capabilities. It said that it is fully committed to ensuring the continued application of resources to address essential skills.