Literacy projects fail to reach one million Irish people in need

A quarter of Irish people experience problems with literacy, but government schemes to improve literacy are reaching only a fraction of those in need, perpetuating a cycle of diminished opportunity for the many who are already disadvantaged in Irish society. By Siofra Kavanagh.

The most recent study on literacy in Ireland was conducted by the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) in 1997. The study showed Ireland to have the worst literacy rates among the European countries examined. The study categorised a sample of 2,439 Irish participants into four levels of literacy. Level four signalled a high competency in reading, writing and numerical reasoning, while level one indicated considerable literacy problems (with, for example, filling out forms, reading instructions, understanding information in newspapers and fiction, and everyday numerical tasks). 

In European terms, Ireland had both the lowest percentage of people in level four and the highest percentage in level one. One quarter of the Irish participants fell into level one, indicating that a million or more Irish people meet with social exclusion arising from problems with literacy.  

Although currently, 80% of students complete their education to Leaving Certificate (or equivalent), the literacy problem among older age groups is compounded by a history of relatively low educational attainment and engagement with the education system. According to the Department of Education, 33% of the Irish population over 25 years of age has received an education no higher than Junior Cert level. Among 17 to 25 year this figure is 17%, and 44% among 55 to 65 year olds.  

The Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) scheme was put in place by the Department of Education and Science in 1995 to ensure that “no child is left behind", and that "every child gets the support they need to reach their full [educational] potential". Central to this scheme is the "Breaking the Cycle" project which aims to put a stop to the self-perpetuation of illiteracy in disadvantage areas. The government pledged €361m for the DEIS scheme between 2007 and 2013 as part of its social inclusion policy in the National Development Plan.  

Yet literacy remains a problem, and the IALP statistics remain relevant today. A recent study carried out by the National Economic and Social Forum shows that in particular children in disadvantaged areas are affected. It states that illiteracy affects almost one third of children living in disadvantaged areas, or 65,000 children throughout the country.  

Family literacy and parental involvement

Considering that the school leaving age has risen remarkably, the statistics on literacy suggest that illiteracy must be tackled within the home, beginning with the child's foremost teacher; their parent. Indeed, studies have found that the amount of books in a home directly relate to the reading ability of a child, demonstrating that it not only a parent's level of literacy that affects their children's education, but also their encouragement of reading and learning.   

The National Development Plan also funds the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and Family Literacy projects which take place in adult learning centres throughout the country. The projects attempt to break the cycle of illiteracy by helping adults facing difficulties to learn the basic skills they need to interact fully and confidently in their children's education whilst increasing their own level of literacy.  

The projects use everyday home and family activities to improve literacy skills in a relaxed non-formal manner, and highlight the importance of parental involvement in a child's education. As only 15% of a child's time in actually spent in school this family involvement is imperative. In fact NALA has found that in relation to children's education the effect of parental involvement is eight times greater than any other socio-economic factors facing children. 

According to NALA, there are currently almost 50,000 adults attending literacy courses, yet this is only a fraction of the estimated 1,000,000 that face fundamental literacy problems on a daily basis. Poor take-up is primarily attributed to stigmas associated with the subject and from previous alienation from the education system.  

NALA also says that a mere 7% of adults dealing with literacy difficulties actually seek help, leaving hundreds of thousands of Irish adults living with illiteracy and exclusion. Indeed, the majority of adults availing of Family Literacy courses and adult education are those with a medium to high level of literacy, indicating that education remains the domain of the educated. These people typically attach importance to learning within the home, and their children are not in the high-risk category in terms of literacy difficulties. 

Many others who could avail of the literacy projects simply are not aware of them. However, another problem is that many of those within the courses have been referred by a social worker. This can lead to a distrust of the course and a failure to fully partake in it resulting in neither adult nor child benefiting.  

The Family Literacy project shows that a massive shift in how we, as a nation, view education is needed. Learning can no longer be confined solely to the classroom and must be seen as a holistic endeavor encouraged and facilitated by everyone within the child's environment. Parental involvement is essential to reducing Ireland's high level of illiteracy and to ensure that every child receives a full education enabling them to partake wholly in the future of our society.