Andrew Neil has been censured by Ofcom for saying in an interview in 2017 that one in five pupils who left primary school in Scotland were “functionally illiterate”. According to the BBC report of the judgment, the BBC submitted that
“the figure had come from a 2009 report, but that “it was not accurate to say that this allowed the conclusion quoted in the programme … It should have been made clear that the phrase ‘functionally illiterate’ was not used in that report and that its source was the education spokeswoman of the Scottish Conservatives.” When it published its findings in November 2017, the ECU said that the 2009 survey “contained no reference to ‘functional illiteracy’, and no data which would have justified the claim in question”.
That surprised me, because I’d come across the 20% figure before.
The main source of the figure is arguably a report written by Professor J Lo Bianco, Language and Literacy Policy in Scotland, published in 2001 by SCILT at the University of Strathclyde. Lo Bianco’s report was a wake up call for Scottish education – it had a major impact on the treatment of Gaelic and BSL. He wrote that “More than one adult in five is not functionally literate in English and even more people have problems with numeracy.” He wrote:
The UK-wide Report Improving Literacy and Numeracy, A Fresh Start (Moser Report 1999) notes in its opening paragraph that ‘something like one adult in five in this country is not functionally literate and far more people have problems with numeracy. This is a shocking situation and a sad reflection on past decades of schooling. It is one of the reasons for relatively low productivity in our economy, and it cramps the lives of millions of people.’ Whilst the situation that is reported is indeed shocking it is far from clear that it is valid to make a direct and causal connection between the levels of assessed adult literacy and ‘past decades of schooling’. The International Adult Literacy Study of 1997 suggests that 23% of adult Scots have low literacy skills.
Subsequently, England developed the “Skills for Life” survey, which by 2011 recorded marked improvements in functional literacy. A Scottish report in 2008, “New Light on Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland” avoided the question of functional literacy. Based on a study of adults aged 34, it commented that ” literacy levels in England and Scotland were nearly identical”(p 8) but commented that ” 39% of men and 36% of women in the survey had literacy abilities at a level likely to impact on their employment opportunities and life chances.”
What’s been happening since is important. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows a marked improvement in standards in primary schools, where the foundations of literacy are laid, and now 88% of pupils in P7 are considered to be performing ‘well’ or ‘very well’. That improvement probably wouldn’t have happened without those earlier reports.
I don’t much like Andrew Neil’s politics, but he’s a terrific journalist. Even if on occasion he gets things wrong, he doesn’t make things up. The main charge against him is not that he was wrong, or that his use of the term ‘functional literacy’ was inappropriate, but that he was outdated. That’s a mistake that any of us who are trying to distill information drawn from a wide field might have made.