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The Growth Of Awareness Of Adult Illiteracy In Britain


I well remember the delight I felt when Betty Cooper asked me if I would consent to her focussing her HNC Business Studies Extended Essay on adult literacy, and in particular, on the work of Rathbone Reading Clubs, the adult literacy scheme I had founded in 1974 with my husband, Philip Glascoe.  At the time, I hoped the study might be used as a training resource for our Volunteers, but the final result exceeded my expectations, and the fact that Amity Reading Clubs (as we have become) is republishing it, is evidence of its enduring merits and relevance more than twenty five years later.

A great deal has happened in the world of adult literacy over that twenty five years.  After the initial excitement of the pioneering work of ALRA (the Adult Literacy Resource Agency) in the mid 1970’s backed up by the BBC’s “On the Move” literacy programmes, recognition of the needs of the adult illiterate went into decline.  Although not generously funded, ALRA was succeeded by the cash starved ALU (Adult Literacy Unit) and ALBSU (Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit) which concentrated on innovation, leaving mainstream funding to local authorities, whose budgets came under increasing pressure from central government.  The BBC kept on broadcasting the “On the Move” programmes, albeit in late night or early morning slots, but did not make any more.  In short, adult literacy slipped off the education priority agenda and languished for nearly twenty years.

It was the new labour government in 1997, with its “education, education, education” agenda which began the process of change.  By this time, ALBSU had become the Basic Skills Unit (BSU), and as the government began to discover the full extent of basic skills deficiencies in the UK, upgraded the BSU to the Basic Skills Agency, under the chairmanship of Sir Claus Moser.  The Moser report of 1999, ‘A Fresh Start – Improving Literacy and Numeracy’, concluded “it is estimated that around 7 million adults have poor literacy skills.  This means that one in five adults reads and writes less well than an average 11 year old.  An even greater number have poor numeracy skills”.  Reading Betty Cooper’s extended essay, it is tragically apparent the country’s skills base has declined over the last twenty-five years, not improved.

By way of response, Tessa Blackstone, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning announced that: “The Government is today making a pledge that, for as long as we remain in office, we will give high priority to reducing the number of adults with poor basic skills.  We will treat this objective with the same urgency and the same passion as getting the basics right in schools.  “Education, education, education” is for adults too!”

This is welcome news indeed and Amity Reading Clubs is ready, willing and able to play its part, as it has done for nearly thirty years.  Although if you had told me in 1974 that our work would be even more essential thirty years on, I would have laughed.  A salutary lesson in how the needs of the disadvantaged and handicapped can be so easily ignored or forgotten.

Gladys Glascoe

© Amity Reading Clubs and Betty Cooper 1978 to 2002 Page 3 of 51

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