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Who should we blame for the British level of illiteracy?

Summary:
That large numbers of we British are functionally illiterate is not a good look nor a decent outcome. The point being that we’ve got to work out what is going wrong, wherever it is in the system, so that we can fix it. If it can be fixed of course, there is always going to be some irreducible minimum number of people who simply cannot grasp such complicated concepts. That’s a sadness of the human condition to be sure but something we’ve got to accept.However, the claim is that we’re well above that level:Millions of British adults are functionally illiterate but the subject is ignored because it is not a “fashionable” cause, according to the most powerful woman in publishing.Dame Gail Rebuck founded the Quick Reads scheme, which distributes specially-written books designed to encourage

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That large numbers of we British are functionally illiterate is not a good look nor a decent outcome. The point being that we’ve got to work out what is going wrong, wherever it is in the system, so that we can fix it. If it can be fixed of course, there is always going to be some irreducible minimum number of people who simply cannot grasp such complicated concepts. That’s a sadness of the human condition to be sure but something we’ve got to accept.

However, the claim is that we’re well above that level:

Millions of British adults are functionally illiterate but the subject is ignored because it is not a “fashionable” cause, according to the most powerful woman in publishing.

Dame Gail Rebuck founded the Quick Reads scheme, which distributes specially-written books designed to encourage adults to discover the joy of reading.

The scheme began in 2005 and attracted some of the country’s best-selling authors, including Joanna Trollope, Adele Parks and Andy McNab. But this year it faced closure after failing to find a corporate sponsor and was only saved after Jojo Moyes, the writer, stepped in with £120,000 of her own money.

“It’s a huge sum of money but not to a corporate sponsor,” Dame Gail told the Telegraph. “But the point is, it’s not fashionable, is it? You can talk about little kids reading - we can all relate to that, we all want children to read books, it’s lovely.

“But adults not reading? Or adults in the workplace not having enough literacy to fill in a form, to work on a computer, to be promoted? That’s not something that people like to talk about. But it exists.”

We think that talking about it should become very much more fashionable, we agree there. But then that’s because we do so like to play the boy’s part in the Emperor’s clothes story.

Currently the State insists that each and every child be placed into its care for some 30, 35 hours a week for some 13 years - it does now at least with the rise in the school leaving age. That’s many thousands of hours of instruction time and the claim is being made that this doesn’t result in general literacy.

We tend to think that thousands of hours of instruction time is enough to ensure general literacy. That it doesn’t might just be the State not being able to do things. Could be that the mechanism has been taken over by ideologues insisting upon teaching something else - how to be an ecowarrior perhaps, or be nice to people. Might even be political fashion as with whole words and teaching kiddies their letters.

But we will insist that this is where the failure is. The State has spent the last century insisting upon many years of exclusive access to children and the end result is that millions of the system’s graduates are functionally illiterate. That system’s not doing what we pay for it to be doing - that’s where the solution will be found, where the reform needs to be.

Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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