Adult Literacy: Statements.

Thursday, 18 December 1997

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 153 No. 6

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Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  Since my appointment, I have been conscious of the scale of the problem of adult illiteracy. Inadequate literacy and numeracy skills put the individual at a great disadvantage, both socially and economically. They can engender a sense of marginalisation, a fear of being stigmatised if the problem becomes known to employers, family and friends.

In today's increasingly complex society, with the revolution in information technology and the need to constantly update one's knowledge and skills, people with poor literacy skills are in danger of being left behind, unable to take advantage of the job opportunities which their abilities otherwise merit. Not only does the individual lose out but society is deprived of the contribution they can make to its development.

A report on the findings of an Irish national adult literacy survey was published at the end of last October. The report revealed that the extent of the problem of adult illiteracy was much worse than realised. Some stark realities emerge from the report. Irish respondents performed comparatively poorly when compared to adults of other developed countries. Approximately 25 per cent of Irish adults between 16 and 65 years of age had low levels of literacy. When that percentage is converted into numbers, it is approximately 500,000 people. It also emerged from the report that many of those who have poor literacy skills are not aware of that fact themselves. Two-thirds of those whose literacy skills were assessed at the lowest level rated their literacy skills as either “excellent” or “good”.

About 5,000 adults are currently participating in literacy schemes. The Government is strongly committed to addressing and resolving the problem of adult illiteracy and promoting adult education in general. This was clearly indicated by my appointment as the first Minister of State with specific responsibility for adult education. In order to combat the problem of adult illiteracy, I have set out the following objectives.

First, I intend to increase public awareness of the importance of literacy in the modern world. It is critical that the full potential of each individual is realised to the greatest extent possible, and that each person has an understanding of their own role in the process.

Second, I will set out proposals in a forthcoming Green Paper on adult education which will provide for the development of a proper policy framework for all aspects of adult education and will give priority to those who left the formal system without qualifications. It will be designed to stimulate an extensive debate on the advancement and development of adult education. It will [458] involve a review of the services in the field of adult education and its basic objectives will be the rationalisation of adult education and the formulation of a national policy for the future of the sector. The development of adult literacy services will be a prominent feature of the Green Paper.

This process will culminate in the production of a White Paper which will reflect, as widely as possible, a consensus of the views of all parties involved in adult education. In due course, legislation will be put in place so the adult education services will be put on a statutory footing.

The Department of Education and Science has a central co-ordinating role to play in facilitating access to adult education. Experience in other countries has shown that adult education works best when the context of the learners is reflected in the content of the adult education programme. Employers and employer organisations, therefore, will have a key role to play and I call on employers and trade unions to join me in this important initiative.

In the context of lifelong learning I will set up a committee to explore the idea of an “education bank”. Lodgements would be made by various parties besides the State that have an interest in improving adult education services. Withdrawals would be made as needed by individuals or groups to cover the expenses of their compensatory education, upskilling and retraining. This could take the form of a code of entitlements. I intend that proposals along these lines should be included in the Green Paper.

Third, I will ensure that adequate funding is made available for adult literacy. In this context, I was pleased with the additional £2 million I succeeded in securing in the recent budget for the relief of adult illiteracy. The provision of this additional funding clearly indicates the Government's commitment to place the adult literacy service at the centre of adult education. The additional funding represents an increase of 75 per cent over the 1997 expenditure on literacy and nearly double the initial 1997 provision, prior to my allocation last October of a supplementary amount of £250,000. I have also agreed substantial increases in my Department's support allocations to the adult literacy support organisations, NALA, Aontas and the Dublin Literacy Scheme, to further assist them in providing their excellent services.

In the expenditure of the literacy funds, the precise use to be made of them in any area is a matter for the vocational education committees, which administer the literacy service. With the substantial increase in 1998, it will be open to individual vocational education committees to enhance the literacy service by such means as extending the period of the literacy courses, recruiting more students, intensifying the courses, undertaking publicity campaigns to encourage people who were previously reluctant to do so to come to classes and by engaging more professional literacy staff. In order to ensure that the [459] Government's commitment to place the adult literacy service at the centre of adult education is implemented nationwide, I have also directed all vocational education committees to ensure that local adult literacy interests are adequately represented on their adult education boards.

These objectives are reinforced by the commitment contained in Partnership 2000 that policy and strategy will give priority to a number of key goals, one of which is providing a continuum of education for adult and community groups, including second chance education. I support the extension of the existing literacy links in a range of different settings. Already there are links between literacy training and the vocational training opportunities scheme, the community employment schemes, FÁS and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, through its centres for the unemployed.

As part of the link with other institutions, the Department is funding a two year pilot programme with the Library Council and two county library services in developing the role of public libraries in the literacy service. This programme will lead to the production of a code of good practice and a national handbook on how libraries can best respond to literacy students and their needs. This will be published in early 1998.

I have had regular meetings with the adult education client organisations, in particular Aontas and the National Adult Literacy Agency. I take this opportunity to convey my appreciation for the valuable and worthwhile work undertaken by these organisations in the promotion and development of initiatives to combat the literacy and numeracy problems experienced by many adults within the community.

It might be worthwhile to mention two valuable initiatives launched by the Department earlier this year. The first was the allocation of funding in 1998 and 1999 to enable vocational education committees to support child care for participants on youthreach and vocational training opportunities schemes. This is intended to bring about a greater participation of women on these programmes by facilitating access to child care services. The second initiative is designed to enable educationally disadvantaged women to pursue lifelong learning education opportunities. Substantial funding is also being allocated over the same two year period for this project.

All of these measures will help to combat the problem of adult illiteracy. However, there is no complacency on my part about the extent of the challenge which faces politicians, teachers and adult education providers in confronting and overcoming this problem.

Mr. O'Dowd: Information on Fergus O'Dowd  Zoom on Fergus O'Dowd  This is an important issue which confronts thousands of people daily. The fact that they are unable to read or write and are functionally illiterate means they are unable to communicate. In many cases they suffer from other [460] disadvantages. In their home environment there might not have been great interest in education, while many come from deprived areas.

I appreciate the good intentions of the Minister of State but a broader approach than the programme he outlined in required to alleviate the problem. It is necessary to interface with people who are not functionally literate at the point at which they encounter the State apparatus or even private enterprise. The reading age required to read most application forms, particularly those for assistance under the community welfare regulations, is higher than that of the applicants. Many public representatives are asked by constituents to fill in application forms for supplementary welfare allowance, pensions and so forth.

The forms should be simplified and use simpler language. It has been scientifically demonstrated that people can be functionally literate with a basic sight vocabulary of 200 words. The level of language and length of the forms should be reduced because many problems are created for people who must fill them in. It is a supreme insult to somebody at the end of their tether, for example, a single parent or an unemployed person with a large family trying to make ends meet, that they are faced with multicoloured community welfare application forms. It is disgraceful and I ask the Minister of State to take this point on board.

In terms of an active adult literacy policy, it is important to have designated officials in Departments and local authorities in particular. They would be trained to deal with cases where people have difficulty filling in forms by referring them quietly and properly to somebody who can assist them. People are intimidated by public offices into which they must go to deal with officials who are not trained to deal with them. They are intimidated by the process which should be made much easier. If they cannot read or write, it is hell for them to argue their cases in offices.

From the perspective of primary education, it is a disgrace that after 75 years of independence approximately 500,000 people are not fully literate. It is disgraceful that so much money has been wasted. There is nothing more basic, real or of such advantage to people than the ability to communicate and to read and write. The resources of the State have been squandered by successive Governments on fine ideas which do not reach the core of literacy problems, which are so difficult for people, and solve them. Intervention in schools should be much earlier. It is ridiculous that there are not enough remedial teachers at primary level to deal with students who have problems reading and writing.

What is the point of having remedial teachers at post-primary level if students have spent up to seven years at primary school and cannot read or write? Many more resources should be targeted at such students at primary level. If they are helped at an early stage it will make a massive difference to their self-esteem and ability to communicate [461] later. I do not suggest there should not be remedial teachers in post-primary schools, but the policy is not sufficiently active. It is not the priority it should be in schools.

Senator O'Toole will have much to say on this subject, but primary school classes of up to 40 students are too large. It is impossible to teach children in such classes in urban schools in Drogheda. Unfortunately, many students who have reading disabilities also have behavioural problems. This is understandable because they cannot communicate. In their eyes, they are excluded from everything. Many more resources should be devoted to this area.

Resources are also required for speech therapy services. It is a scandal that millions of pounds are being spent on claims by soldiers for hearing loss. I understand 485 new applications were made last week by Defence Forces personnel claiming hearing loss. A millionth of that sum is not spent on education. Some young people have hearing difficulties at certain ranges and cannot phonetically understand or make the sound of words to enable them read or write. A much more radical and inclusive programme is required. We need to get our act together on this issue.

Surveys show that a significant proportion of people in prison are unable to read or write. They have learning disabilities and many also suffered social disadvantage. This cycle would be broken if there was early intervention and a package of measures geared towards such people in schools. Entire families are affected by these problems. If I went to the District Court in Drogheda today I would know the people there and if my son went to the court in 30 years, I know whose children would more than likely be there. The cycle of poverty and disadvantage must be broken. There must be a radical examination of this area. I appreciate this is the start and measures are being taken. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Department of Education and Science, the Minister of State and all politicians to make headway on this matter, but we have not yet fully grasped the nettle.

People with reading and writing disabilities do not want to go to their local vocational education committee schools. They do not want other people to know they have problems in this area. There was an article in The Irish Times recently about a literacy seminar where two of the fine people who read at it did not want to be identified. They were unable to read or write when they were young and they did not want to be publicly identified as people who had that disability. We should be much more sensitive to the needs of such people. There are many community and voluntary bodies in my constituency of Louth who work on a one-to-one basis with adults in their homes if they wish.

The problem of adult literacy must be tackled. As a teacher I am aware of the profound lack of confidence experienced by people with literacy [462] problems. It is difficult for Members to realise because, luckily, we can read and write, that these people are gravely disadvantaged. More must be done for them and it will be possible to make ends meet if a structured approach is taken.

It may be heresy for Senator O'Toole and other national school teachers, but we should consider teaching the alphabet phonetically. This is done is some schools, but not in others. It is a basic way for people to learn through the sound of letters and words. This is a way to solve the problem of literacy.

I frequently hear criticism that an inadequate number of educational psychologists is available in the entire education system to deal with people with literacy disabilities. Schools are lucky to have the services of an educational psychologist once a term to deal with dozens of people. The psychologist can only identify and work with the most seriously disadvantaged. This area too must be examined. I thank the House for listening. Níl an Ghaeilge rómhaith. Bhí deoch agam aréir agus tá sé imithe. Tá orm imeacht ach beidh mé ag léamh na n-óráidí eile.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  I agree with many of Senator O'Dowd's remarks, but I disagree with his views on the Minister of State's response to the problem of adult literacy. I expected Senator O'Toole to participate in the debate and I decided therefore — this is not a cop out — that I would not refer to the primary education sector. I will leave that area to Senator O'Toole, my boss in another capacity, who will ably articulate ideas about this subject and education in general.

I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment to the Department of Education and Science. He has special responsibility for adult education and this appointment speaks volumes for the attitude, mentality and approach of the Government to this important area. It is probably the first time a Minister of State has been appointed with specific responsibility for adult education. This is a significant and important step.

Debates on adult education are important at any time. However, it is even more appropriate at this time because it comes on the heels of the recent publication of the major international adult literacy report. I have studied the Minister of State's response to it and I intend to comment on his remarks. A study of the aspects of the report relating to Ireland was carried out by the Educational Research Centre in Drumcondra, and I thank it for the professionalism it brought to that task. Prior to the 1980s illiteracy was thriving in secret because, as other speakers have said, illiterate people hid themselves. They were embarrassed about coming forward because they dreaded being labelled as illiterate and that dread still exists. During the 1980s a group of volunteers gave free literacy tuition and did enormous work to bring illiteracy out of the closet and to help people participate in literacy programmes.

[463] The adult literacy service has developed over the years despite being funded from the crumbs of the Department of Education's budget. The Minister of State will not be insulted by that as he was appointed recently. This lack of finance hindered the development of the service. This survey is the first of its kind to provide detailed information about the literacy profile of Irish adults as well as drawing international comparisons with other countries surveyed. The survey also gives us a benchmark against which to measure the progress or otherwise we have made in the last ten to 15 years and signposts targets for the future.

Basic literacy has been defined in the past as the ability to read and write to a level at which one could sign a form, vote or read a newspaper. However, the survey took a much more rounded approach, which is consistent with how literacy is now viewed. Literacy forms part of the objective of enabling every individual to realise his or her potential to its maximum effect. That is the Minister of State's abiding wish and I commend him for it.

The survey interprets literacy as the ability to understand activities in the home, at work and in the community, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential. The survey's findings present us with harsh realities about literacy standards in Ireland. Previous surveys indicated that approximately 100,000 people in Ireland were illiterate, but we now know that one in four adults between 16 and 25 have a low level of literacy which is equivalent to completing primary education or lower. The Minister of State is very anxious to deal with this.

It is even more worrying that these people do not seem to be aware of this, which means they have little opportunity to realise their own potential. We debated an important initiative in the Department of Education concerning the allocation of £250 million to an investment fund for technology education. All Members agreed that this is very commendable because it responds to the demands a rapidly changing world places on one's literacy skills. The ability to communicate efficiently facilitates access to the world of information, which experts tell us is doubling every five years. An inability to communicate through inadequate literacy has economic and personal implications for one's quality of life. Nobody disagrees with the correlation drawn between employment opportunities, income and literacy. If one has a low level of literacy one's employment prospects are poor. Almost all people at the lowest level of literacy are unemployed. If one has a high level of literacy one's potential to earn high income for a good quality of life is also high.

Our programmes must reflect the need to target this. As we prepare our workforce to exploit the technology age, it is important to ensure that the 500,000 people conservatively estimated to be at the lowest level of literacy are not further disenfranchised [464] by widening of the literacy gap. We speak of social inclusion, but our failure to address the literacy problem shows our inability to come to terms with social inclusion.

I welcome the Minister of State's success in doubling his budget for his area as I know his emphasis will be on adult literacy. Some of those who provide this service spoke to me recently and said they had lobbied hard. They did, but much lobbying has been done over the years which did not result in particular budgets being doubled. The Minister of State was successful in projecting the important role that adult education has in promoting higher levels of literacy.

When responding to the ILS survey, the Minister of State indicated that he already had some objectives, but the report suggested some key targets. The lack of a cohesive programme for adult education has been a major flaw which the Minister of State intends addressing. Adult education was organised on a wing and a prayer by the vocational education committees, communities, parents and schools and AONTAS/NALA. These bodies found when lobbying that there was no national policy. I am glad the Minister of State has decided this issue needs a Green Paper and that all interested bodies must contribute so that we will have a structured approach from now on. I also welcome the Minister of State's announcement that we must make people aware of the importance of this service. We must work sensitively and imaginatively in partnership.

I welcome the Minister of State's initiatives. The development of adult education must be integrated to deal with adult literacy in future. The level of literacy of thousands of adults does not equip them to fully exploit our booming economy. Clearly, one in four adults would benefit significantly from further literacy education both in terms of their economic well being and their personal development. It behoves us to ensure that these fundamental needs are met without delay.

Mr. O'Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole  Zoom on Joe John O'Toole  I do not doubt the Minister's commitment in this area although he and I have had many healthy differences of opinion and he has got extra money for adult education. I want to establish my own credibility in the area of adult literacy. Although I am known for my involvement in primary education it is necessary to say that the INTO was a founder member of the People's College in 1947. I was a board member of the People's College for many years. I was also a board member of AONTAS for many years and I attended the AONTAS conferences every year as a delegate from the People's College and I have also been involved with NALA. I have had a clear involvement in this area for a long time. Because of that I can look at this question from a number of different points of view. We need, first of all, to establish the nature of the problem. It may seem unnecessary to say this but it is, in fact, worth saying. Second we must ask how and at what level we should deal with the problem. [465] Whereas I accept Senator Fitzgerald's point about the professionalism of the researchers who carried out this study, I do not believe that one in four people in Ireland has a reading problem. To come to that conclusion is totally daft. I said this in Paris to the OECD. I query the validity of the approach taken in its survey. The OECD report clearly enunciates that one in four of the population are somewhere at the lower levels of literacy. We then discover that the lower level is something marginally above primary level. If every child left primary education having achieved the primary school literacy level we would not have a literacy problem. Some of the tests used in the survey were not very clever. In one test subjects were shown the directions on a medicine bottle and asked to explain what they meant. We all have difficulty reading directions on medicine bottles.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell  Zoom on Willie Farrell  Sometimes the handwriting is not very good.

Mr. O'Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole  Zoom on Joe John O'Toole  I do not trust the OECD to do surveys such as this. The Minister did not make clear in his speech that the Irish taxpayer paid for this report. This was money poorly spent. If we are to examine the adult literacy problem we must begin at the primary school level. There are 2,000 primary school classes of more than 40 pupils. I have no doubt that when Senator Fitzgerald and myself began our teaching careers this was much more common than it is today. We were able to cope with it, but times have changed in terms of attitudes to authority and of the freedom pupils are allowed. Trying to handle 40 pupils is much more like crowd control than teaching.

Any effective teacher will know the three or four children in his or her class who have a reading problem. It is a teacher's job to know that. One way to find out the level of the problem is to ask the teachers. They can, without identifying children, tell how many have a reading age which is 18 months or more below their chronological age. It may not be a very scientific method but is cheap.

Nearly 1,000 primary schools do not have access to a remedial teacher. If there are 20,000 primary school classes in the country, if in every class two or three children experience reading problems and if they do not get help from a remedial teacher, every year perhaps 50,000 children leave school with a reading difficulty. I can give the Minister this information for nothing. We should not be surprised to find that there is a difficulty at the adult level.

Can the size of the literacy problem be established scientifically? I am general secretary of a teachers' union which has often been represented in newspapers as being opposed to testing, assessment and evaluation. I am all for evaluation properly done. I can offer the Minister a challenge. He says he has £2 million for adult education. He [466] could spend a quarter of that money on an extensive, comprehensive and effective national literacy survey. Let us find out for ourselves the size of the problem. I do not want any nonsense from Paris and the OECD about sending people around Ireland with medicine bottles asking people to read the directions. I want us to design a test. We must decide what we mean by literacy. I do not think anyone here could define it. I could not. We teachers use the criterion that if a child has a reading age more than 18 months behind his chronological age he has a reading problem. If a child cannot read he is illiterate. Teachers would sit down with the Minister and his officials to design an instrument and we would co-operate in implementing it in the evaluation process.

A survey of the literacy level of the working population between the ages of 20 and 60 should be undertaken to ascertain the average literacy levels. A different test instrument is required, but it would be easier to compile than the first one. The third stage would involve a survey of the literacy levels of the long-term unemployed. This is crucial.

Information on these three aspects — the literacy levels of pupils leaving primary school, of the normal working population and of the long-term unemployed — will provide us with statistics which will tell us virtually everything we need to know about this issue. We can then get back to establishing the relationships between education, qualification and employment. We know the statistical connections but we do not know why.

Speaking in this House five years ago, when unemployment was over 18 per cent, I said that we would be able to reduce it to approximately 9 per cent because of the numbers of unemployed with qualifications. Unemployment below 9 per cent covers people who experience numeracy and literacy problems or who have no qualifications. Now that unemployment has dropped below 10 per cent for the first time in 15 years the challenge will be to employ these people. They found work 15 years ago in employment requiring little or no qualifications, such as factories. IBEC advises that such jobs have gone to the Middle and Far East. That is as well, because parents do not want their children to work in those kinds of industries. Furthermore, they will move from the Far East to Africa within the next 20 years. We must seek to give these people quality employment and for that they will need qualifications.

All these aspects tie in with the Minister of State's brief. If people do not have literacy and numeracy they will be almost unemployable. This is highlighted by the ongoing debate, both here and in the UK, on a minimum hourly wage. It will be sad if in this booming economy employers say they cannot pay permanent and long-term staff £5 per hour without becoming unprofitable. This issue was not addressed in the debate on emigration yesterday, but half the people serving in pubs and restaurants within a half mile radius [467] from this house are not Irish because Irish people will not work for the wages they pay, which are usually £2.50 per hour. By contrast, I was served a drink in a Brussels hotel on Monday night by a young woman from Cork. She would not do that in Cork but, like many of our children, she will do it as part of her travel experience.

A two pronged approach is required. The problems of illiteracy should be addressed at primary school level. That requires resources which the Minister of State will not get, yet the problem will continue until they are allocated. It is pointless for the Minister of State to say that he will ensure that hand writing tests will be given to check literacy levels. As I said to him on a famous previous occasion, giving hand writing tests to children to determine how bright they are is like determining a person's ability for employment on the basis of their accent. The Minister of State encountered something like this in London recently.

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  I did not; I was widely supported.

Mr. O'Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole  Zoom on Joe John O'Toole  I am aware of that. Proper testing is required. Parents and politicians must have confidence in it and teachers must professionally approve and implement it. Resources should be put into addressing the problem at primary level while tackling the adult illiteracy problem. We must then see how these programmes relate to the economic development and prosperity of the country by dealing with the other issues, such as the levels of literacy at primary school level, among the working population and among the long-term unemployed.

Dealing with the issue on this basis will enable us to know what has to be done. If we bring unemployment below 7 per cent it will be an extraordinary achievement. Every percentage point below that will be back breaking because of the difficulty in finding suitable people to fill vacancies.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell  Zoom on Willie Farrell  Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire agus tugaim comhghairdeas dó faoin obair a rinne sé agus an t-airgead a fuair sé ón Rialtas chun an córas seo a chur i bhfeidhm. When we speak of adult education we must think carefully about some of the figures presented in this debate. I am 30 years in public life and I have yet to meet a person who could not fill a form. People may not know the answers to questions, some of which can be complicated, but they are well able to write down the answers.

Many surveys today are agenda driven and we must be careful about what they seek to promote. For example, I would be illiterate in English by comparison with Senator Norris. What standard should be used to test my literacy as opposed to his? I saw a travelling man in a supermarket hand a £10 note to the cashier for the purchase of approximately £3 worth of goods. When the cashier gave him his change he asked her to recount [468] it and it was found to be short by 10p. Was that man suffering from a lack of numeracy skills? We must take into consideration the standards by which literacy and numeracy skills are measured.

We had high standards in our national schools before the 1970s and 1980s when good two teacher schools were abolished because experts at the time said that big schools were better. Pupils were bussed to big centres because it was calculated that it would be cheaper to educate them in big groups. The basis of the experts' information was cheap petrol and the availability of low paid drivers. When petrol prices increased after the first oil crises in the early 1970s and when the bus drivers became organised, the plan backfired.

Years ago a survey on primary education was undertaken in Scotland which measured the vertical and horizontal approach. Prior to the 1970s we used the vertical system. Infants, first, second and third classes were taught in one classroom and fourth, fifth and sixth classes were taught in another, while those going on to seventh class were taught in the master's school. The survey discovered that this system was much better than the horizontal, which we introduced in the 1970s. This entailed teaching 40 pupils at one level in a classroom. There was no problem with 40 pupils under the vertical system because they were divided between three and four classes. The teacher had more interest in his job because he was not teaching the same subjects all day.

The standard of handwriting has disimproved. I often got three slaps at school for handwriting that was better than that of one teacher I saw recently. We also did away with the need to learn tables and the alphabet. When I was young we read the newspaper to improve our English. One would get a poor education from reading today's newspapers with their misspellings and misprints. We have literacy problems because we have lowered our standards.

I do not believe 25 per cent of adults cannot write. The OECD should go to the dole offices to see how many people there cannot sign their names. When I was young I saw people making their mark with an X. Many members of that generation never went to school but they had fantastic memories. When they went to the creamery they would get the messages — butter, sugar, tea, bacon, meal, etc — for up to eight neighbours and despite having no list they would get a perfect order for every house. We did away with teaching the ability to learn poetry by heart. People's memories have been destroyed. They must depend on computers and if the electricity fails everything comes to a standstill. That would not have happened when people used pens and paper. Although we made some good changes, perhaps we also threw out many good things.

As a former student of the vocational school in Grange, I am delighted the vocational education committee will administer this scheme. I cannot speak highly enough of the vocational schools. Their only mistake was to go into secondary [469] teaching which meant they lost funding. The technical schools were the equivalent of FÁS and ANCO in my day but provided much better training. Students received work experience in their last year. That was a great form of education which we also did away with.

There is no promotion of foreign language education for adults. Many truck drivers who transport our goods across the Continent are teaching themselves foreign languages. What is being done in adult education to help such people? If we continue to provide only high tech education who will drive trucks, build houses or make furniture in five years' time?

Senator Quinn referred to the equivalent of a leaving certificate for students who are taught trades, which is very important. There will be a huge shortage of builders and tradespeople in a short while because FÁS is training people to build and plaster eight foot high walls in sheds which are then knocked down. Such hothouse training has no relevance for people working on three and four storey buildings. We must promote education in that regard.

The primary schools have done a comparatively good job but they are handicapped by large numbers of pupils. My father used to say that any school in which the pupils changed teacher too often was no good. In those days children were taught by the same teacher for three years and most had only two teachers in their life. The teachers knew how to help those who needed it. That is gone forever.

Teachers are now in a difficult position because very young students are telling them what to do in very unparliamentary language. What can the teacher do about that? In my day such a student would have got a tip at the butt of the lug which would have straightened him out and did him no harm. Teachers must walk away now. How can there be education when there is no discipline?

I regularly say a prayer for my teachers — they were great teachers and did not abuse their students. I know some teachers at that time were very brutal but it must be remembered that their salaries, which were only a couple of pounds at best, depended on their end of year results. When we criticise teachers we must remember the environment in which they worked. I have no friends or relations in the teaching profession but I have great respect for them.

I can remember third class today as clearly as the day I sat in Carney's school. Our last exercise before the summer holidays was to write a letter home. We had to rule out an envelope on another page, draw a stamp on it and address it to our parents. Mrs. McMorrow wanted every child leaving her school to be able to write a letter home from England or America. That was sensible and important education. She also taught us that year how to add up shop bills with six rows of goods. The idea was that if one could write, add, subtract and multiply one had the necessary basics to make one's way through life. We abandoned [470] reality and abolished that form of education, which is why there is so much illiteracy today.

All children should get a basic national school education. The School Attendance Act has been in existence for years but it is not being implemented because schools are too big nowadays for teachers to know who should be in their classes. That is another disaster. We will never get back to basics because the introduction of big schools destroyed the fabric of society. The biggest tomboy on the bus now leads the charge. When we walked home from school we were studying nature. We robbed orchards and birds nests but it was a nature trail. We also met philosophers who quoted Goldsmith or Yeats. We always questioned what we learned. This form of education was valuable.

The Minister is doing good work in funding adult education. However, if we are all professionals, there will be no one to drive diggers or use a shovel, and this will be a sick society. We should get our priorities right. Everyone in the world is a link in a chain and no link is stronger or more important than another. There must be workers and bosses.

There is a story about a bellringer and sacristan who died and the parish priest who was asked to give the job to his son. The parish priest said he would but asked the son if he could read and write. He said he could not and the parish priest said he could not give him the job. The son went to America, did very well and came back to a big reception. The parish priest said the son deserved great credit as he had so little education he could not give him his father's job. The priest asked him if he had education what would he be doing today and he said “Father, I would be down there ringing the bell.”

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I thank Senator Farrell for the enthusiasm and determination of his contribution. The Government is also determined in its commitment to adult education. I am delighted a Minister has been given a portfolio for adult education as it is an area which never received attention.

I was not aware of the problem until last June when I was asked to speak at a prizegiving ceremony for an adult literacy course in the Dublin Institute of Education in Mountjoy Square. I assumed a dozen or so people were taking the course. However, I discovered a couple of hundred people were involved, including helping and teaching. A large number of those people determined at a late stage in life to solve a problem which began much earlier. The majority of them were not doing the course to get a job. Three or four people I spoke to said the reason they decided to go back to education in their late thirties and early forties was because they were ashamed they were unable to help their children do their homework. This problem was not recognised and did not get publicity. I welcome this [471] debate, which will help to draw attention to a problem the Government has already recognised by giving the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, special responsibility for it.

The OECD report is fascinating. I had a black and white view that illiteracy was an inability to read. I did not realise there were six different stages of illiteracy, which the report discusses, along with the ability to reach these stages. The report is worthwhile reading for those who have not had a chance to do so. The summary discusses the current situation in relation to adult literacy.

The problem of adult literacy is not talked about often and tends to be swept under the carpet. This is because people with the problem do not want to talk about it, even to their own families. I got a jolt when I discovered a number of my employees who are competent, capable and enthusiastic were unable to read or write because they did not reach the initial standard when they needed to. Admittedly, the jobs they are doing are not the high paid jobs of the future.

The public is slow to admit the existence of a problem, because it cuts across our self-image as a well-educated nation. Similarly, some people involved in education regard the existence of a problem as a reflection on their competence as educators and sometimes tend to go into denial whenever anyone raises it. I expected Senator O'Toole and Senator Liam Fitzgerald to do this and I am impressed they did not. The problem does not lie with educators but with the system they inherited which they are obliged to make work. There needs to be changes in that system.

I want to make some general remarks about the overall importance of the literacy issue. I have heard it said that literacy is not so important today as it once was because so many media are available that do not depend on reading. Most people get their news from the broadcast media. A person could be reasonably well-informed without ever reading a word. There are also a wide range of entertainments that do not depend on reading.

However, it is as necessary to be literate now as it ever was. It is interesting that the OECD report shows an improvement at all levels, although Ireland is low on the list in international terms. One needs to be literate to get a job, hold it down and get ahead in life. Literacy is necessary because the number of unskilled, manual jobs is decreasing. Adequate literacy skills are needed to do most jobs. There are very few jobs one can get without having some qualification. Educational qualifications depend on literacy. If one's literacy skills are inadequate, one is unlikely to have a qualification of any kind. No qualification means no job.

I have a particular perspective on literacy skills in education due to my involvement in the leaving certificate applied. For many years I have argued that the assessment system relies too much on written examinations and too little on oral skills [472] which are equally important in the world of work. This is beginning to change. In this year's leaving certificate applied, for the first time there was an examination of oral English. Most communication nowadays is oral. Written exams only are not the way of the future.

There are people who can write a good sentence but find it difficult to be articulate face-toface because they have not been trained in that. Accordingly, assessment should not be so dependent on written examinations. In making this argument I have never intended to reduce the importance that is rightly attached to being literate. Adult literacy and numeracy skills are basic life skills and are the foundation on which everything else is built. People without those skills are overwhelmingly likely to become the have-nots in our society. Why does this problem arise and why does our education system fail to address it adequately? It is because of the way our system is structured.

Our system is like a bus which is moving all the time. If a person falls off the bus at any stage, it will not stop. Those who want to catch up with it are doomed to run faster and faster after it, but they never get back on. In certain areas of learning, including literacy, numeracy and language skills, the basics are everything. If, for any reason, one fails to grasp the basics properly at the start, one is lost forever as far as the mainstream system is concerned. The bus keeps moving, leaving them running behind it.

We have structured our system on the assumption that most people can cope in the mainstream and that only a tiny minority cannot do so. Senator O'Toole said a teacher is able to identify the small number in a class who cannot cope. We assume that because it is a tiny minority, it can be dealt with by a correspondingly tiny effort in remedial teaching. This structure is fundamentally misconceived. The number of young people who could benefit from remedial teaching in some area of literacy, numeracy and language learning is not a tiny minority. It is, at the very least, a substantial minority.

I am not sure that most young people do not fall behind in some of these skills at some stage in their education. I remember the day I fell behind in maths. When the teacher asked if we were clear on calculus, I did not have the neck to put my hand up and say I did not understand. Had I done so, I might have got back on the bus. I failed to grasp calculus in February of my leaving certificate year so I dodged those questions in my leaving certificate exam. Everybody loses contact at some stage. If they miss that bus, they do not get back on it again.

Most of our resources go to mainstream education and a derisory amount goes to the remedial side. A large amount of what is spent on the mainstream is wasted because we are trying to teach people who cannot learn because they lack the basics. They fell behind at one point and did not catch up. At the extreme end of the scale, [473] young people who lack these skills do one of two things, both of which are equally undesirable. Either they drop out of education prematurely, which is a recipe for disaster, or they reluctantly stay in education and become bored and disruptive and resources spent on trying to educate them in this way are wasted. Sometimes they may even interfere with resources spent on the other students because they become troublemakers. Our system is based on the misconception that the majority are capable of getting the basics of literacy, numeracy and language learning right first time. Resources are allocated on that basis which is fundamentally flawed.

There is an issue of social exclusion here which goes right to the heart of the problem. The better off a person's parents, the more likely they are to get those things right in the first place. They will have had a head start if they come from a house with books and one in which most people read newspapers. Most people consider it important to read newspapers. They will have a head start if they have been sent to pre-school from an early age because most pre-schools will lay a foundation for literacy and numeracy skills. Many children go to national school without those advantages. They start in the formal education system with a profound disadvantage. Our system tends to deepen that disadvantage rather than reduce it.

A disadvantaged child is more likely to encounter basic learning difficulties. When that happens, a further disadvantage emerges. When well-off parents see a child falling behind, they will pay to have the matter seen to. Either the child will go to a private school where the pupil-teacher ratio is low enough to permit individual coaching or the parents will pay for private coaching outside school hours.

I return to my analogy of a bus. If a well off child falls off that bus at an early stage, which they are less likely to do anyway because of their basic start, their parents can hire a taxi to catch up with the bus. Other children have to run to catch up, some of whom never do so. That is the direction in which the Minister is going. It is a recognition that our present system does not give all students the basics. If we give them the basics, we will enable them to stay on the bus. The answer is recognising the problem in the first place.

I am delighted the Government is taking a greater interest in adult education than before and that it has provided increased funds in the budget to do so. The extra money which will go to adult literacy is small in terms of the overall size of the problem but it is enormous in terms of the good it will do. We should not consider that we are addressing this problem correctly until we also address its root causes, no matter how hard that task. I congratulate the Minister on his ability to focus the Government's attention on this matter, on his commitment and on the determined effort he is making to solve this problem.

[474]Dr. M. Hayes: Information on Dr Maurice Hayes  Zoom on Dr Maurice Hayes  Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht teacht anseo inniu. Tréaslaím leis as an maoin airgid atá faighte aige ón Roinn Airgeadais. It is difficult to follow Senator Quinn's insight into and compassionate and sympathetic analysis of the problem. He has left little for anyone else to say. On the analogy of the bell ringer, I shudder at the thought of what the average basket of groceries would cost if he had mastered calculus. This a much wider problem than people believe and I am glad the Minister and the Government are focusing attention on it.

I support Senator O'Toole's idea of some sort of benchmarking survey to establish what we are talking about when we speak about illiteracy. I believe we are talking about functional illiteracy — the inability of people to have a full social life or to take advantage of the employment opportunities being offered because they cannot read or write. They are increasingly excluded from employment which requires intellectual skills. There is a danger of society breaking up into two groups — 85 per cent of people who are doing quite nicely in the economy and 15 per cent who are not doing well and are fated to remain locked into a type of poverty which is defined more than anything else by poor education and lack of skills.

People need to be computer literate. Oddly enough, more people are computer literate than have the old fashioned type of literacy. It is tragic to see children go through the education system and leave it unable to function on that basis. Like Senator Quinn, while I welcome the money being spent and the involvement of the vocational education committees, we are putting a sticking plaster on a huge gaping wound. We need to focus our attention at a much earlier stage in the system. There must be some attempt at pre-school education and a remedial reading unit in every school whereby children who are falling behind in reading can be brought up to speed.

Senator Quinn said that the difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich can cope with these problems. I am involved in the Ireland Fund which gives money to some community groups on the Shankill Road in Belfast and where there are enormous problems in relation to education. In the past education was not necessary for those living on the Shankill Road as apprenticeships were available, for example, in the shipyard. Such jobs are no longer available and the schools have refocused on the new level of expectation. People say that if their children lived in a richer area, extra tutors and teachers would be available, and this is exactly what residents on the Shankill Road are now doing on a voluntary basis. I commend this example to the Minister.

People have coped with illiteracy over the years, even to the extent of filling up social security forms. Indeed, one is better able to fill out a social security form if one is illiterate — they certainly baffle me. Suddenly illiteracy is being exposed and people need to be helped. Doing so [475] through the vocational education committees is a good idea. However, I hope the vocational education committees address the problem with imagination and a sense of how difficult it is to get people to recognise this condition and to overcome it.

For most people illiteracy is a shameful condition which they have been hiding, perhaps even from their own family. Exposing it requires much courage and help and courses devised to reflect this should be welcomed. Some years ago in Britain an adult literacy campaign was run on television and I suggest this to the Minister as a possible medium which allows people deal with the problem in the privacy of their homes.

The issue of computer literacy was raised earlier. It was found in some areas of Belfast that children who could not read were quite computer literate from playing computer games. This computer literacy was used in helping the children to develop their functional literacy.

A number of schemes at community level and organised by women are being run in Belfast. If it were helpful I can put the Minister in touch with some of these schemes.

There must be a fundamental examination of literacy in the schools in order to stem the flow of people losing ground in terms of literacy. We owe it to our children and our citizens to give them the opportunity to fully function in society and to take advantage of the jobs which are available. If we do not do this, we will find that the problems will cluster and result in all sorts of other social problems.

We must try to work through community groups. People know their neighbours and can take instruction from people in areas which they were turned off from in school. There must be some sort of depots, even shop front depots, where people can attend courses. Both North and South there has been enormous investment and great development by community groups and this should be harnessed in addition to the work of the vocational education committees.

I wish the Minister well in his campaign and congratulate him on the focus he is giving the matter. I hope that, in addition to the resources being devoted to remedial work, that resources can be allocated to prevent the problem from arising in the first instance.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I welcome the Minister to this House and his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with special responsibility for adult education. This is important and highlights the fact that this is the year of life long learning. It also provides a context for this debate which takes place against the backdrop of the OECD report.

[476] The OECD report places Ireland almost at the bottom of the OECD countries in terms of this question. We may be critical of the report or say it is inadequate and does not take into consideration the cultural and other aspects of the Irish experience, but it is a comparative study. In that context we criticise it at our peril. It shows an alarming situation whereby the percentage of those with serious literacy problems, which we thought to be 10 per cent, is 25 per cent in the 16 to 64 years age cohort. The people in this group were found to have literacy skills approximate to those of 12 year olds or less. This places a serious question mark over our education system and its ability to deliver an adequate expertise in basic literacy and numeracy to the population.

Many of those surveyed were unaware of their deficiency. On the contrary, many thought they had excellent levels of literacy. Involvement in adult literacy programmes is one of the lowest in Europe, at less than half the average per capita participation.

These facts have to be addressed against the background of a waste of human resources and potential. The effect of illiteracy on a person, who because of their problem finds it difficult to get a job, is enormous. Their self-confidence is undermined as is their personal perception of themselves among their peers. There is a stigma attached to illiteracy, many people deliberately hiding it. The potential which is not tapped due to people losing out somewhere along the way, be it from mitching or getting into trouble, is incredible. This is evident in areas of disadvantage where there are high levels of crime and poverty and low levels of literacy.

The survey shows the huge lack of information about illiteracy and a lack of interest among educationalists in dealing with the problem. There is also a lack of organisation in the provision of services and a lack of funding to support such provision. We are only touching the tip of the iceberg. If we are talking about 5,000 people out of a population of 500,000, then effectively only 1 per cent are in receipt of adult literacy training. Very little impact is being made at present. A massive 250,000 people are unemployed, among whose ranks would be a high number of people with adult literacy difficulties. We have created a lifestyle of virtual dependency for these people from the cradle to the grave. In areas of endemic unemployment, people are born into the social welfare society and do not leave it until their death. The present system finds it difficult to provide an adequate level of education in these areas.

The Minister has indicated some very important policy developments and decisions which he proposes to make to create an awareness of the problem. He proposes to publish a Green Paper, establish an education bank into which funds can be invested, directed and targeted and examine what steps can be taken in relation to the existing library structure throughout [477] the country in terms of provisions of literacy services.

In terms of pilot initiatives, the Minister outlined an initiative in the area of child care provision — I presume this refers to cre ches — and an initiative to enable educationally disadvantaged women to pursue lifelong learning educational opportunities. This is an area in which there is huge scope for development.

The City of Dublin vocational education committee runs 67,000 post-leaving certificate courses which are largely of an adult education rather than adult literacy nature. One thousand adults are participating in adult literacy schemes in Dublin of which there are 13 in existence. Only two full-time adult literacy organisers are employed by the vocational education committee while 53 voluntary groups, directly funded by the vocational education committee, operate an outreach system. There are two community based guidance counsellors in the Dublin vocational education committee area. A total of 350 youthreach students, 1,100 VTOS students and 300 second level allowance scheme participants - the scheme is a hybrid of the VTOS — all receive adult literacy training to one degree or another. In total, 17,000 people attend courses in the adult sector and out of that number there are 1,000 dedicated adult literacy participants. Out of the 5,000 people participating in adult literacy schemes countrywide, approximately one-fifth are participating in courses provided by the vocational education committee. I am glad to see that the Minister recognises the vocational education committees to be the main providers in this area.

The budget has already been described as fairly derisory and that is a fair description. Until 1997, approximately £2 million out of a total Education budget of more than £2 billion was provided for adult literacy. That worked out at 0.001 per cent of the total budget and was a mere drop in the ocean. Even if the percentage were to be raised to 1 per cent, the figure would still be only £20 million. That is not a huge amount of money.

The figure has been doubled this year from £2 million to £4 million and that is to be welcomed. However, we must look at the extent of the problem. One hundred adult literacy schemes are being operated throughout the country by 38 vocational education committees. A figure of £2 million or £4 million is still a very small amount to cover all the schemes, community based and otherwise, being offered. Much good work has been done by organisations such as the National Adult Literacy Agency, Aontas, the People's College and directly by the vocational education committees.

As he commences his term in office, the Minister should look at this issue speedily and thoroughly in terms of what can be done. We should adopt a two tier approach to the problem. The real problem lies in the fact that mainstream education is not adequately addressing the educational [478] problems facing young people and adults in disadvantaged areas. Paddy Clancy's study of rates of access to third level education still shows only 4 per cent of the student cohort in Dublin 1 having access to third level education and that figure has not improved significantly over the past ten years. In spite of the amount of money invested in home school liaison, psychological services, the breaking the cycle scheme, guidance counselling, remedial services, pupil/teacher ratios and so on we are not making an impact on the problem. Our education service is a layered one, from primary to third level and none of these layers flows into the other properly.

The necessary flexibility does not exist in education but we must become flexible. We must look at establishing a national pre-school service; this service already exists in some areas. We must target young people before they start primary school. Some areas do have a service which is operated on a shoestring by parents or private groups.

We must also look at the establishment of an after-school service. Young people should not have to do their homework in the overcrowded flats and inadequate housing which are part and parcel of the local authority housing structure in many areas. They find it very difficult to do their homework and there is no service within the schools or the communities for them to do it. Parents could become involved in the establishment of an after-school service through adult education programmes and designated centres could be set up in various areas. Young people should have the opportunity to do their homework in a regulated and controlled environment.

The fees for the junior and leaving certificate examinations must be abolished. It is crazy that students are still being charged examination fees. Savings in this area are only approximately £2 million per annum. We should provide free education where it really bites and where its effects can be seen. Young people often avoid doing examinations because their parents cannot afford the fees.

We must also examine the issue of PLCs. This Government must honour its commitment to provide maintenance grants for PLC courses which are estimated to cost in the region of £13 million. This is the area in which most young people from disadvantaged areas are likely to get third level or further education. A greater proportion of those who attend PLC courses come from disadvantaged areas than from other areas. That is the area we should be targeting and I would like to see that done.

It is time we took the educational issue by the horns. We should create a further tier of mainstream education in addition to the existing primary, secondary and tertiary tiers. The fourth tier would deal with continuing adult education. If we did so, we could provide a separate budget line for adult education, a professional structure and specially dedicated and strategically located education [479] centres. We could provide a range of courses that would be pathways not just to literacy but to employment and other progressive activities in education. We could provide full-time literary organisers as well as a proper range of part-time tutors.

If we decide adult education is so important that it needs to be treated in a similar fashion to the existing educational tiers, then we can put a proper national policy framework together with adequate funding and resources. This is the key, but it would have to be argued for strongly in Cabinet and elsewhere.

Adult education must be brought into the mainstream otherwise it will remain as it has been — on the periphery — and it will be impossible to obtain adequate funding for it.

These arguments have been put forward by every sector. The business sector was represented by Senator Quinn who spoke about the loss of employment and human resources. People are condemned to a lifetime of belonging, effectively, to a subculture outside society. Society's ghettos encompass crime and loss of life. They pose questions concerning the style and quality of life for the disadvantaged people who live there.

I am delighted with the Minister of State's appointment with specific responsibility for adult education. Having been the most neglected area of education in the past, it is now the most ripe for development. It has always been operated on a shoestring, hand to mouth basis. I fervently hope the Minister of State's appointment will herald a new approach to adult education with particular emphasis on the importance of dealing with literacy. I hope national structures will be put in place to adequately deal with a problem that we do not seem to be able to cope with at present.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  It has been a very interesting debate and I have taken careful note of the various contributions on which I will reflect.

Senator O'Dowd referred to the need for a broader structural approach. When I was appointed as Minister of State I found the adult education system, as Senator Liam Fitzgerald rightly said, was all over the place. In recent years it has grown hugely, but in a very haphazard manner, and so much so that very few of the players on the field realise the full extent of what is involved.

My first priority was to put a structure on adult education and I am proceeding to do that with outside experts whose help I acknowledge. That is why I have directed the Department of Education to issue a Green Paper on the subject by 20 January. This will generate a national debate from the various interested parties, including business, trade unions and employers. Within a timescale of six months I hope that will culminate [480] in a White Paper which will be a signpost for action. Nobody should be under any illusion but that I am determined action will be taken, based on the recommendations which ultimately come through the White Paper.

Senator O'Dowd also referred to the complexity of official forms and there is something in his point. In my own constituency I regularly deal with farmers who have to wrestle with the new series of grants dictated largely by regulations from Brussels. It is a source of constant wonderment to me how they cope with many of these forms and the bewildering array of schemes. Sometimes such schemes produce very little in terms of grant aid that a producer can qualify for.

We must always be conscious of the need for simplicity and clarity in official forms. It is not just a question of the complexity of the form itself. Much of it, particularly in the social welfare area, has to do with the approach of the person who is behind the desk who is supposed to help people complete their forms. That is something we need to keep under constant review.

Senator O'Dowd recommended that each local authority and official office should have somebody to help clients fill out their forms. That is a matter for the local authorities and Government Departments themselves. It is not within my brief to issue any directives or make any decisions on that matter. Suffice it to say that the Senator has the germ of a good idea.

Senator O'Dowd thinks the net result of the OECD report is that we have literally wasted all the money spent on the education system since the foundation of the State. That idea is basically off the wall. The fact is that while we have an illiteracy problem, by and large everybody — including a whole array of international independent economic commentators — have linked the economic boom and the birth of the Celtic tiger to our excellent education system and the skilled workforce it has produced.

If one studies the OECD report closely, one will see that the problem is far less among the 16-25 age group and only slightly worse among the 25-35 group. The worst problem is at the upper end of the scale in the 55-64 age group who were in the system before the introduction of free secondary education. The figures demonstrate that the situation has been constantly improving as one moves down the age bracket.

At the other end of the scale, a number of reports indicate that we are first among the OECD countries in terms of the numbers of science graduates, aged from 25 to 35, per 100,000 of the population. For example, we have twice the number of science graduates as Japan. A number of other reports indicate that we have established a competitive advantage over the rest of the world in terms of science and technology, particularly among the younger age groups.

The legislation we are enacting today will establish a scientific and technological investment fund of £250 million which will not be spent at [481] the expense of other areas that require money from the Department of Education. The fund will be quite exclusive of the Education budget. It has been put in place precisely to press home the advantage we, as a nation, have established in that area.

Senators O'Dowd, O'Toole and others referred to the insufficiency of remedial teachers and the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level. There is no doubt that the problem of the ratio will be partly solved by demography. However, we are not content to sit back and let that solve the problem. The Minister has made it clear that resources will be voted for and invested in that area to constantly reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, which has fallen progressively over the past decade. I am told there are now almost 1,200 remedial teachers at primary level and 360 at secondary level. Some might say it is not enough, but it is the highest in the history of the State, and this is at a time when the pupil-teacher ratio is probably at its lowest level. We are committed to further improvements in that area. There have been a number of recent initiatives at primary level, for example, the “Early Start” programme, the “Breaking the Cycle” programme, home-school links, junior certificate elementary programme, the applied leaving certificate, etc. We acknowledge the contribution of previous Ministers for Education in establishing some of those initiatives. The House can be assured we intend to expand and build on those.

Senators O'Dowd, Maurice Hayes and others pointed out the reluctance of people with literacy problems to come forward and we are conscious of that. I have directed the vocational education committees to use some of the extra money I have put at their disposal to advertise these literacy courses and services in a more humane, userfriendly and less embarrassing way. It all comes down to language. We have examined what is being done in the UK, where a different form of language is used and where there has been a move away from the terms “literacy” and “illiteracy”. The language used is designed to minimise the embarrassment for people who wish to come forward. I have no doubt, having spoken with NALA especially, that many people want to enrol but have not, partly because of embarrassment and partly because they are reluctant to admit they have a literacy problem. The major part of the problem is lack of resources. I accept Senator Costello's point that £4 million of the total education budget is very small. Nevertheless, it is £2 million more than was provided last year. The opportunity for people to enrol will be twice as great this year as it was last year. That is the net result of what we have done. The £4 million figure is the base upon which we can build for the future.

Senator O'Toole was unhappy with the outcome of the OECD survey, especially with the methodology, if I understand him correctly. He thinks the Irish Government wasted money. I [482] assure the Senator that the Government's financial involvement in this project was to contribute £30,000 for our part of the survey, which is very small. The survey was carried out by local people involved in the education system and the OECD compared the results with other countries. I realise there are differences in culture and language and that there were slight differences in the methodology of carrying out the survey in the different countries. That said, it still gives cause for concern.

Senator O'Toole said it was rubbish to state that one in four Irish people could not read or write and I agree with him. However, it is not a question of being able to read and write, to sign one's name on a dole form or to recognise something on a poster. The conclusion reached by the OECD was that one in four Irish people was insufficiently equipped educationally to function properly in the complex information society and to take advantage of the employment opportunities increasingly offered in that kind of society. That is the difficulty and problem; it is not about literacy or illiteracy. The OECD survey graded literacy from one, the lower end of the scale, to four or five, the top end of the scale, which includes people who are supremely competent in functioning within the information society. It found a disturbing number of Irish people, 25 per cent of the adult population, were at level one, which was only exceeded by Poland, and that gives cause for concern.

Senator O'Toole suggested we overcome these problems by spending £250,000 on another survey which we conduct ourselves. Perhaps there is some value in that and I will discuss it with the Minister; but I have more urgent needs for my budget and I could not commit myself to spending £250,000 of the £4 million I have for improving literacy on yet another survey. Whatever difficulties we might have with the methodology and the comparative methods used by the OECD, we will have to work on the assumption that there is something in what it says and that is borne out by our daily experiences. There is a problem which must be tackled. If the Celtic tiger keeps roaring and more money pours into my section of the Department, the day might arrive when we can afford such a survey. I know it is a fundamental problem, but we can go on what the OECD has said, given that the Irish statistics were compiled by Irish people who are skilled in that area and in the area of examinations.

Senator Farrell mentioned language teaching for the adult population because of truck drivers crossing different boundaries. It is something I will bear in mind. It is not strictly part of the literacy category but it is part of overall adult education which I will deal with later.

The Senator also pointed out that the School Attendance (Amendment) Act has not been enforced. I have some difficulty with its nonenforcement. We intend to introduce new school [483] attendance legislation which I hope will be in the next Dáil session.

Senator Maurice Hayes referred to the need for computer literacy. We are discussing basic literacy. Computer literacy is for people in the workforce who have not had the advantage of computer training and who find they now need it as part of the lifelong learning process. The Senator also referred to the need for vocational education committees to be sensitive and to encourage people to come forward and I have dealt with that.

Senator Costello referred to the lack of funding, which I have already stated is twice now what it was before. He also referred to the inadequate provision within the City of Dublin vocational education committee. It is one of the 38 vocational education committees which will benefit from the increase in funding. The Senator also referred to VTOS, but we are discussing the adult literacy and community education budget. The VTOS budget is separate. The Minister announced extra places for the VTOS scheme some time ago. We find at the moment that the supply of places roughly meets the demand, but it is again an issue of encouraging more people to come forward.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I was referring specifically to Dublin.

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  I accept the Senator's point about Dublin. The same applies to Limerick city. If there were more places, there would be no shortage of people to fill them. I am conscious of that, as I am of the need to refocus the VTOS in ways which time does not permit me to elaborate on. I hope we have the opportunity to discuss it on another day.

Senator Costello was anxious that the Government meets its commitment to provide maintenance grants for PLC courses and it is determined to do that. Both the Minister and I were disappointed we did not manage to have it included in the Estimates for this year, but I have no doubt it will be in place next year. I have had many pickets placed on my office and house to remind me of our commitment in that regard. I assure the House it will be put in place next year.

Senator Costello's suggestion of a further tier for mainstream education is interesting. If it could be done, it would ease many of my difficulties. However, I must work on the assumption that it will not happen. It is an interesting proposal, which I will discuss with the Minister. The Senator has given me ammunition in that area and I thank him for it. If it cannot be done that way, I have a number of initiatives which I will pursue to approach the issue in another way.

Adult education is not only about literacy, even though literacy is important and must be given priority. We are entering an era of lifelong learning [484] in which, in about 30 years, people will have to change jobs five or six times. We must provide for this and put Ireland at the forefront of that movement. We must stay ahead of the competition. That is why I speak of concepts such as an education bank which I will formally announce in the new year.

I have radical ideas on lifelong education to maintain our competitive advantage. Other countries are now thinking of this issue and recognise the changes being brought about by technology and the information society. I am determined that Ireland will be as well, if not better, prepared for that than any country. This is why I will announce a number of initiatives early in 1998.

I thank Senators for their contributions and I take their views seriously. I will take a number of their ideas on board and discuss them with the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Finance, who is an equally important player in this matter. I thank Senators for recognising that adult education and lifelong learning are, and will be, of paramount importance to Ireland in the next Millennium. No matter how long I am in the Department of Education and Science, Senators can rest assured that I am conscious of my responsibilities on literacy and lifelong learning. I have given and will continue to give of my best.


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