Without doubt the most worrying OECD study this autumn for the UK wasn't the much discussed PISA study, but the study of adult literacy published in October. This study isolated a massive challenge for England and Northern Ireland (the two UK countries participating). Whilst the general comparison of average reading skills showed that the two countries were pretty average in terms of OECD comparisons, the reading skills of young adults were significantly weaker. In fact our young adults (16-24 year-olds) have the weakest reading skills in any OECD country, apart from Spain and Italy . Even more worrying, this age group had the weakest literacy skills of any adult age-group in England and Northern Ireland. Yet this is the age group who should be enjoying the benefits of the National Literacy Strategy of the late 90s.
The fact that this age group is facing almost unparalleled employment challenges must be linked to their literacy skills; one in five young people are unemployed, whilst the numbers unemployed for two years or more are at a 20 year high.
The National Literacy Trust worked with a group of MPs and Lords to examine how schools should respond to this problem. What are the most effective strategies and approaches that secondary schools can use to raise literacy levels and improve the employability of school leavers?
Over the last few months we have spoken to hundreds of young people, employers and teachers. We have heard about how aspirations are formed and nurtured or in some cases destroyed. And we have heard how aspirations empower learning.
John's story epitomises this: John is 15 and is a gypsy Roma traveller, he is a student at Baverstock Academy in Birmingham. He arrived at the Academy last year speaking very little English. John's teacher worked with him not only to support his literacy, but also to help him form aspirations for his future. Working with volunteers from local businesses - as part of the National Literacy Trust's Words for Work programme - John's class explored their future careers and the skills they would need. Meeting with paramedics helped John to formulate his own aspirations. John's evidence to the group of MPs was inspirational. His new skills and confidence were obvious. Real life ambitions have acted as the necessary stimulus to learning new literacy skills.
The Commission's report concludes that the most vital and precious resource in addressing youth literacy is the aspirations of young people themselves. This is the area that needs to be grown and schools cannot do this by themselves. Partnerships between education and business are the vital resource which will enable this. The Commission recommends how these partnerships can be grown and utilised as a literacy resource.
The Commission makes a series of recommendations to Government, aimed at addressing the strong causal link between low literacy and youth unemployment. These include:
1. Increase the demand from schools for contact with business as an indispensable element in the teaching of literacy skills for the 11 to 14 age group.
2. Increase the supply of opportunities for young people to work with employees and develop realistic employment aspirations.
3. Improve brokerage between the business and education sector.