Government's adult literacy targets are ridiculous

Posted on Monday, 6 September 2010

The issue of literacy has been contentious in recent times. The Department of Education’s policy for tackling literacy problems among adults is in the opinion of Social Justice Ireland simply unacceptable. As part of the 2007 Government NAPinclusion document a target for adult literacy policy was set stating that “the proportion of the population aged 16-64 with restricted literacy will be reduced to between 10%-15% by 2016, from the level of 25% found in 1997” where “restricted literacy” is defined as level 1 on the International Adult Literacy Scale. People at this level of literacy are considered to possess “very poor skills, where the individual may, for example, be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from information printed on the package” (OECD).

As table 1 shows, in numerical terms this implies that the aim of government policy is to have “only” 301,960 adults with serious literacy difficulties in Ireland by 2016. (These calculations are based on the lowest CSO population projection for 2016. The CSO’s calculation is based on their M0F2 demographic assumptions.)

Table 1:

Irish Government Adult Literacy Target for 2016

Adult population (under 65 yrs) in 2016


10% “restricted literacy” target


15% “restricted literacy” target



Calculated from CSO (2008:27) using the lowest CSO population projection for 2106 – the M0F2 population projection assumption.

The question needs to be asked, how can policy aim to be so unambitious? How will these people with serious literacy problems function effectively in the economy and society that is emerging in Ireland? How can they get meaningful jobs? In reality achieving this target could only be interpreted as representing substantial and sustained failure.
Overall, Social Justice Ireland believes that the government’s literacy target is illogical, un-ambitious and suggests a complete lack of interest in seriously addressing this problem. This is totally unacceptable in a society which, for the first time in its history, has the resources to tackle these problems effectively and comprehensively. This target on literacy should be revised downwards dramatically and the necessary resources committed to ensuring that the revised target is met.
Social Justice Ireland believes that the government should adopt a new and more ambitious target of: reducing the proportion of the population aged 16-64 with restricted literacy to 5 per cent by 2016; and to 3 per cent by 2020. This will still leave approximately 150,000 adults without basic literacy levels in 2016. However, this target is a more ambitious and realistic in the context of the future social and economic development of Ireland.

Some years ago an OECD survey found that a quarter of the Ireland’s adult population performed at the very lowest level of literacy. More recently, the OECD found that Ireland’s fifteen-year olds have the fifth best literacy rates out of 27 OECD countries. The reality appears to be that the literacy levels among Ireland’s school-going population is much higher than among the population generally. But this hides a more telling fact.
A 2004 report prepared for the Department of Education examined literacy standards in disadvantaged primary schools. This report by the Education Research Centre at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra found that more than 30 per cent of children in those schools suffer from severe literacy problems. Furthermore, it concluded that only a small minority of 12-year olds from these areas take a positive view of their own reading achievement (Eivers et al, 2004). A similar report by the same authors published in late 2005 reaffirmed these findings and also noted that in some poorer areas up to 50 per cent of pupils have literacy difficulties (Eivers et al, 2005).

Both reports highlight the two-tier pattern of Ireland’s educational outcomes. Many do very well. But it is also clear that a great many are being left behind. As identified in a 2003 report by the Department of Education and Science, “the worrying tendency for educational disadvantage to cluster in specific schools/areas and to be reproduced across generations raises serious equity issues and highlights the need for effective educational interventions”(2003:7).