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Adult Literacy and Numeracy

Volume 568: debated on Thursday 10 October 2013

I beg to move,

That this House believes that, with one in six adults functionally illiterate, the UK’s skills gap is preventing the country from fully realising its economic potential; understands that improved literacy rates not only have economic benefits but also have positive effects on an individual’s self-confidence, aspirations and emotional health and wellbeing; notes that literacy rates for school leavers have shown little change in spite of initiatives introduced by successive governments over recent decades; understands that the social stigma attached to illiteracy and innumeracy often prevents adults from seeking the help they need, which means that signposting illiterate and innumerate adults to Further Education Colleges is not always the most effective course of action; recognises that literacy and numeracy programmes must be made easily accessible to the most hard-to-reach functionally illiterate and innumerate adults if valued progress is to be made; and calls on the Government to renew efforts to provide imaginative, targeted and accessible support to illiterate and innumerate adults.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us the time for this debate, which raises a matter that many Members of the House feel passionate about. For everyone fortunate enough to be able to read the Order Paper without any trouble, adult literacy might not seem like a pressing issue. It is certainly easy to take the ability to read for granted without thinking about it from day to day, but for the millions of functionally illiterate adults in the UK, the inability to read will define and limit their whole lives. The loss goes far beyond missing out on the delights of the Order Paper, with everything from bus timetables to important medication leaflets remaining a challenge.

You might think, Mr Speaker, as I did, that the issue affects only a small minority of people. You might assume that everyone around you can read fluently as you have never heard them say otherwise. In reality, a staggering one in six adults in the UK is functionally illiterate.

I should probably take the time to remind the House what illiteracy and innumeracy mean, as they are not always the most helpful terms. There is a spectrum of ability. For example, the one in six figure is not for adults who are completely unable to read but for those who have a reading age no greater than that expected of an 11-year-old child. According to the most recently published Government survey, there have been welcome gains for many of those at upper levels, but the big worry is that those at or below entry level—that is, those with the poorest skills—appear to have increased in number, at around 15% of the adult population. That is a staggering 5 million adults. Those people might be struggling on, desperately trying to hold down a job or manage a household without the basic skills every person in the UK deserves. That could be anyone we know, from a fellow parent at our child’s school to a friend who seems always to forget their glasses. Numeracy figures are an even greater cause for concern, with almost 50% of the adult population—17 million adults—having only primary mathematics skills.

According to research released by the OECD this week, some 16.4% of adults living in England and Northern Ireland—or about 5.8 million people—score at the lowest levels of proficiency in literacy. We must address that issue if we are to build a skilled economy that will drive Britain forward in the global race. The figures get worse for those aged 16 to 24, where we bump along at the bottom of the league tables below Estonia, Slovakia and Poland. In fact, England is the only country in the survey where young people today have lower basic skills than their grandparents did.

Weak literacy and numeracy have an impact not only on the business and skills agenda but on Government policy and community life. How can someone hope to get off welfare and get a job if they cannot read or write? How can we decrease rates of recidivism when illiteracy in prisons is so high? How can we properly prepare our troops for civilian life when literacy is not valued among our armed forces?

There are many social consequences of our collective failure to give people the help they need, but, more than that, this is a crisis for individuals. National numeracy statistics reveal that adults with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be unemployed as those who are competent, and more than twice as likely to have children while still in their teens. Those with the lowest numeracy skills are twice as likely to miss their repayments and risk losing their home. Children who struggle with numeracy are twice as likely to be excluded from school. Tackling that is the first step to raising aspiration, increasing self-confidence and helping everyone to reach their potential.

To those who lack the ability to read and write, every door appears closed. They cannot apply for most jobs because filling in forms poses a challenge; and they lose their sense of self-worth because they lack the skills that so many of us take for granted.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I have a background in primary education. Does she agree that the best education that we as parents can offer our children is a partnership between what we do in school and what we are able to do in support of our children at home? That reveals a deep problem—the effect that illiteracy and innumeracy have, not just on community but within families. A few years ago I was lucky enough to run a scheme for parents to help them support their children in numeracy. It revealed starkly the problems that my hon. Friend is alluding to—parents’ lack of confidence to support their children.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly valid point. It is often where parents have weak literacy and numeracy skills that the children are least inclined to learn. I will return to that later in my speech.

It is worth pointing out strongly that just because someone is illiterate or innumerate, it does not mean they are stupid. Just think how sharp they have to be to get through even a day without these skills. Some people are incredibly bright but they just missed an opportunity somewhere in their life. That is the situation for one in six adults in the UK, and there is no quick fix to overcome it.

Literacy and numeracy rates have shown little change, despite numerous initiatives by successive Governments. Between 2001 and 2011, Labour spent £9 billion on adult literacy programmes, with little improvement at the bottom end of the literacy spectrum. Illiteracy and innumeracy are not problems that can be tackled simply by a Government throwing money at them.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. I draw her attention to the progress that has been made on adult numeracy in Wales since 2001. There has been a marked improvement, and now over 80% of the adult population exceeds level 1. However, we now need to make great strides in literacy, so there will be a constant effort to drive up standards. Will she acknowledge the work that has gone on in Wales, where there has been a marked improvement in numeracy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Sadly, the OECD report relates only to England and Northern Ireland, so it does not bring into consideration the results for Wales, but it is fascinating to hear those statistics.

There is a social stigma in being unable to read or write, which prevents individuals from seeking the help that they desperately need. Between a third and a half of adults with poor literacy and numeracy want to improve their skills, although less than 5% have actually been to a class. If we are to boost literacy and numeracy rates in the United Kingdom, we must first help learners to overcome the barriers created by social norms, and provide the help that people need right in the heart of our most vulnerable communities.

Over the past two years, I have raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions. I have posed numerous oral and written questions on the subject to the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education. The responses tend, almost without exception, to direct me to the great work that is being done via formal adult education providers, such as further education colleges. But literacy and numeracy are not further education; they are basic education. If we are to make them accessible to the most hard-to-reach individuals, we must think about where, and how, we deliver them. In many cases, a formal educational environment did not work out very well for these people the first time around, so the prospect of going back as an adult is, quiet literally, terrifying.

One exemplar of a formal education provider tackling this issue is in my Gosport constituency. The Out There project, which is funded by Hampshire Learning in collaboration with St Vincent college, provides courses for those wanting to extend their basic skills. These courses are delivered in community centres right on the doorstep of some of our most vulnerable—and valuable—residents. It is the friendly, informal environment, the free courses and the access to free child care which break down many of the frequently cited barriers to adult learning. This is what is giving individuals the confidence to go out and transform their lives for themselves. Between 2012 and 2013, the Out There project attracted 2,427 hard-to-reach learners, making it the most effective scheme of its type in Hampshire. It has even been used as a case study of excellence in the EU-REALM Platform against Poverty initiative. I am proud not only of the recognition that it has received from overseas, but that it has had such a positive impact on my constituency.

The Government have secured continued funding for over 600,000 adults to take maths courses and 600,000 to take English courses, which are essential, but it is also essential that funding continues to flow into projects such as the Out There project, and I hope the Government will continue to maintain their support, both financially and politically.

Clearly, the problems of illiteracy and innumeracy begin in schools. A crucial component of raising standards of literacy and numeracy has to be getting children to think that it matters: 25% of kids do not believe there is a link between reading and success. This failure to value literacy at a very young age has a profound impact on someone’s life chances. Once someone starts down this path, the problems become deeply embedded, and part of the experience is the problem of parents. If a parent has weak literacy or numeracy skills, a child is less likely to be imbued with an aspiration to learn. I agree with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—NIACE—which suggests that all schools should develop a family learning policy and all local authorities should form strategies for child and family development.

The percentage of children who, at 16, lack basic literacy remains stubbornly high at around 19%. Of course, ensuring that our children leave school with good literacy and numeracy skills is essential and it must be a priority, but we cannot leave behind a generation of adults who have been failed by the education systems of the past. Low skill adults need a second chance and we must recognise that skills can be developed outside formal education. One way of doing this is through peer-to-peer learning.

In my constituency, there is a truly remarkable man by the quite glorious name of Andy Paradise. He has set up a charity called Read and Grow, which combats illiteracy. Andy was shocked by the very low levels of literacy that he witnessed while he was an inmate in Dorchester prison, and he was inspired to help others less fortunate than himself. Under the ethos of “each one teach one”, Andy and his volunteers at Read and Grow use a reading tool called “Yes we can read” to share their skills in environments such as the local library discovery centre. This book is the brainchild of a brilliant author, Libby Coleman, a former head teacher in some of England’s most challenging schools. “Yes we can read” facilitates peer-to-peer learning. The idea is that anyone who can read can use the tool to teach somebody who cannot. The results are startling.

The London-based homeless charity The Passage piloted a literacy scheme in one of its hostels using “Yes we can read” to help former rough sleepers develop their skills. One of the most amazing side effects was that staff at the hostel noticed a drop in drug and alcohol use by their homeless learners the night before they were due to have a lesson. The scheme has been so successful that Westminster council announced that it would roll out the project to all its hostels. I hope other councils will recognise the huge potential of literacy schemes to turn around the lives of those who have fallen on tough times.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that this is another area where local volunteers, whether from a church or a local charity, can assist local councils in helping people who are in such desperate need?

That is the key. The interventions that can take place in the community through volunteers—those who care passionately and those whom others feel they can more easily relate to—are extremely important.

I commend the hon. Lady for her excellent speech. Following the point the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) made, I pay tribute to the schemes run in partnership with not only the voluntary sector but the public sector, like those run by the Bridgend county borough council libraries, by Cymorth, and by Flying Start, the equivalent of Sure Start in Wales, where parents and children sit together and read. There is a role for both the voluntary and public sectors in driving the agenda forward.

I think that this problem can only be tackled from the grass roots up.

“Yes we can read” is also reaching offenders in Britain’s prisons. In 2008 over two thirds of prisoners starting a custodial sentence had numeracy levels at or below level 1. The book has recently been made available in prison libraries, providing prisoners with invaluable access to this excellent resource. Peer-to-peer learning is arguably the most effective way to boost skills among prisoners. It removed the barriers created by an uncomfortable classroom and teachers whom the inmates often cannot relate to.

Improving literacy skills is crucial to reducing reoffending, as it boosts the chances of getting a job and holding on to it when released. One of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley briefings describes the National Grid-led offender training and employment programme. It works with prisoners coming to the end of their sentences and provides training and a job on release. More than 2,000 prisoners have passed through the scheme, which has an average reoffending rate of just 6%.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise for arriving late—I was serving on a Select Committee. She touches on recidivism and penal issues. Is she aware that the exemplar national payment-by-results scheme at Peterborough prison, which will hopefully be rolled out across the prison estate, depends on literacy, numeracy and life skills to reduce the level of reoffending and that it is absolutely crucial to prepare prisoners for life outside prison? Adult literacy must be at the centre of all such schemes.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Although the scheme is not just about basic skills, the statistics are quite striking. It has a reoffending rate of just 6%, nearly eight times less than the UK average rate of 47%.

Basic literacy and numeracy skills are the foundation for an adult’s employability. Young men and women who lack literacy are the least likely to be in full-time employment by the time they are 30. That failure has a dramatic impact on business. A 2011 CBI study showed that 42% of employers were unhappy with literacy among school leavers and 44% were investing in remedial classes to improve basic skills. That is in line with my experience. I have owned a small business for the past 20 years and seen for myself the gradual decline in the level of numeracy, literacy and employability one can expect as the norm from school leavers.

I am pleased, therefore, that the Government have embedded a system whereby Jobcentre Plus advisers must scrupulously assess the English and maths needs of a relevant benefit claimant, mandating them to an initial interview with a provider where the lack of skills is preventing them from moving into work. NIACE is concerned that without improving basic skills among benefit claimants, we will be unable to improve employability and help reduce the number of long-term benefit claimants in the UK.

In order to achieve that, jobcentre advisers need to invest time in clients. Historically, their attempts to combat illiteracy and innumeracy have been hampered by staff choosing the quickest methods of assessing skills needs, falling for the “I’ve forgotten my glasses” line that we have already discussed, but that is not satisfactory and we must ensure that such practice does not continue.

I am pleased that all apprenticeship providers will be required to support apprentices to achieve level 2 in English and maths. Apprenticeships are a fantastic way for people to develop their skills and get a foot on the jobs ladder. With that in mind, I welcome the progress the Government have made in tackling adult literacy and numeracy problems, but there is still more to be done.

In closing, I reiterate that the focus must be on grass-roots learning. Community learning is a great way to promote skills development, and I welcome the Government’s support for that progress so far. I firmly believe that courses aimed at improving literacy for families and individuals who are most disadvantaged and furthest from learning are one of the best ways to tackle the absence of fundamental skills among our adult population. Adult literacy and numeracy problems cannot be solved by top-down Government policy and investment; our action must be bottom up, from the grass roots of society. If we can raise standards in schools and embed programmes that help right in the heart of our local communities, we can provide hope and opportunity to millions.

Order. I should advise the House that the second of our debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee is extremely heavily subscribed. Therefore, in respect of this debate, it would help if each Back-Bench colleague who now speaks—I certainly do not include the hon. Lady leading the debate in this category—could confine him or herself to no more than 10 minutes. That would be most useful. We will be led by a master of the genre, on the strength of his 34-year service in the House, Mr Barry Sheerman.

I will not report you to the ageism commission for that remark, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who has been a strong campaigner—the best I have known—on adult literacy and numeracy. She has corresponded with me on the issue many times and I am delighted to be a co-sponsor of this debate along with Members from the other two main parties.

I have tremendous guilt about this issue, because I chaired the Education Committee, which has had various names, for 10 years. We thought we were doing a reasonable job, but I do not think we focused as much as we could have on literacy and numeracy. It is never too late, however, to look at the issue again.

One of the most important things to recognise about this debate is that there are no easy solutions. The answer has evaded all Governments and all political parties over a very long period. During my 10 years as Committee Chair I learned that evidence-based policy is not always the total answer, but it is not a bad place to start. We should ask, “What is the evidence?” I have discussed adult literacy and numeracy with a number of people and there is a great danger that some think they know the answer intuitively. They will immediately say, “The reason is this”, and then give a simplistic explanation that is not based on anything. Only this morning I spoke to a colleague who said, “Well, the reason is the high level of migration in Britain”, but that is not true if we compare ourselves with other countries.

The recent report on adult literacy by the OECD—it was published only this week—is convenient and substantiates everything the hon. Lady said in her very good speech. We are ranked 19th out of 22 nations on the literacy of people aged 16 to 24, and 14th out of 22 on adult literacy. That is a chilling comment on our society.

A fundamental problem in this country is that our social and economic structure has changed dramatically over a short period. As you have said, Mr Speaker, I have been an MP for 34 years, but during my young days as a university teacher—one of the undergraduates I taught at Swansea university is sitting on the Government Benches—the world was very different, in that there were a lot of low-skilled and unskilled jobs in our economy. I remember cycling to Hampton grammar school and seeing a sign outside a factory I passed that said, “Hands wanted”. There was no mention of brains. That was the society in which we lived, with 50% or 60% of people working in manufacturing industry. It was a very different society.

When I speak at universities today and ask people about the social and economic structure of our country, they reply that 30% or 40% of people work in manufacturing, but the real figure is 9.5%, while 30% work in education, health and local authorities—what are sometimes called public services—and 60% work in private sector services. People who work in the early-years and later-years sectors are on the minimum wage or minimum wage-plus. People who work in retail and distribution are on minimum wage-plus. We live in a very different society today. The onus is on people who are seeking employment to have high skills and high literacy and numeracy.

May I just finish this point? In many ways, we have responded to that challenge. We have more graduates and more talented young people coming through with the advantages of higher education. That is indisputable. However, at the same time, we have failed to deliver basic education to a significant percentage of the population. Those people are very unlikely ever to get anything other than the most menial work on the lowest wages.

I wanted to intervene not to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but to strengthen his argument. He said that roughly 9% of people work in manufacturing industry. I am sure that he would recognise that the nature of that industry has changed enormously. The skills that are required for people to enter that industry are probably greater than they have ever been in the past 100 years. Even in that industry, it is not just hands that are wanted, but brains. The modern manufacturing world wants people who are literate and numerate, and who can work with computers.

That is absolutely right. A lot of manufacturing is coming back to this country because things can be manufactured anywhere in the world with highly sophisticated equipment, such as 3D printers, and only a small number of highly skilled people.

We have the problem that about 25% of the young people coming out of our schools have only one bare GCSE. Something is going dramatically wrong that we have not been able to put right. We must do something about it. I want to make a strong case for looking at the evidence. We need more research into why that is happening.

When I became the Chair of the Select Committee, I had all sorts of assumptions about which parts of our country were underperforming educationally, but that was absolute prejudice. The evidence shows that the coastal parts of the country are among the lowest performing areas. People on the street would say that the north-west performs very badly, but that is not true. It is coastal areas and the east of England, which contains Cambridge university and the Open university, that are the lowest performing areas.

We must look at the facts. Where is the underachievement? What is it in the structure of certain communities that means that people do not value education, do not stimulate their children to be interested in education and do not support them in the school process? We know that the early years are essential. It is important for children at a very young age to sit on somebody’s lap and have those little cloth books read to them. We must get children into reading very early on. We know that that works.

There are many fashions and fads. If there is one thing that we must not do in this debate, it is to be party political. We must not get carried away by enthusiasms. The research on teaching children to read shows that if teachers are trained to use a system and that system is used, it works. It is fashionable to say that only synthetic phonics works. We know that that is not true. If we have a system and train people to use it, we will get good results.

We must carry out research and have systems in place, but we must also have people who inspire us. Mr Speaker, you know that I am obsessed with the English poet, John Clare. When he lived, he had only 100 poems in print. We have since discovered a lost archive of 1,000 poems. He was one of our greatest poets on the environment. He left school at 12, the peasant son of a thresher and a farm labourer. All his life, the only jobs that he got were through standing in the village and being hired. He was only 5 feet tall, so he did not get much work. However, he learned to read at the parish school and was liberated to be an amazing poet. He lived a full life in so many ways.

Only this weekend, I was reading Caitlin Moran in The Times. I am an unashamed devotee of Caitlin Moran—in fact, I got some strange comments when I was in Spain with all our great-grandchildren and I was reading “How to Be a Woman” by the side of the pool. I tweeted that I was getting some strange comments, and Caitlin Moran immediately tweeted back:

“You carry on being righteous, dude”,

which I thought was rather good. Caitlin Moran is a young woman from a family of seven who lived in social housing, and there were a lot of barriers to her succeeding, but she learned to read and could not stop reading. What a fantastic talent she is. From John Clare 200 years ago to Caitlin Moran today; that is how to get kids to be liberated and become full citizens.

When I go into schools and universities I talk about the importance of education and of liberating talent, and I call it “the spark”. The spark is in all of us, if only we can reach it. If a child does not have early stimulation and the support of a network, it is quite difficult for them to find that spark later in life, liberate it and let it blossom. The earlier the better, but it can still be done later on. Further education colleges are good at parts of that and provide basic skills, but there are other ways. Mentors are crucial, and I say to the Minister that they are cheap. I find that business people, professionals and university teachers want to give back, and they will be mentors.

When I talk to university and other students, I say that if they liberate themselves, they will liberate themselves for a good life. The best debate we can have with young people is by telling them that it is difficult to have a good life on the minimum wage. That is true, and we have to liberate young people so that they are not only talented and great providers in our economy but great citizens. We can do that only by tackling the problem as early as we can, and let us do it on a cross-party basis.

It is a delight for me to make my first speech in the Chamber for three years on this subject. I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) for giving me the opportunity to do so by securing the debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for remarking that he was my lecturer at Swansea university—he has a lot to be blamed for in many ways. I always said that he taught me all I know about politics, and he reminds me that I came into Swansea university as a little Tory and came out a bigger Tory. That is a fact.

This is a good debate. We need to do more about literacy and numeracy, and I was delighted to hear what the Leader of the House said about it in business questions. The hon. Member for Huddersfield is absolutely right that it is not a party political matter. It has dogged this country for decades under different Governments, and we have to look harder for the solution. It is about making people better not simply so that they can get better jobs but so that they can fulfil their ambitions and lead better lives for themselves. It is a quality of life thing, and that is vital. Millions of people are affected in this country alone. The OECD report has been mentioned, and it is shocking that we are so low down the table—almost at the bottom. All Members should hang their heads in shame that that is the case, and we need to do more.

Dyslexia has not yet been mentioned. We need to do a lot more to understand people who suffer from it—they are not stupid people, but they need better help and earlier diagnosis. If that does not happen early on, we can find that they lack interest in what is going on in school because they feel that they are not up to it, which is not the case. Some 10% of people in this country suffer from dyslexia, and apparently 4% severely so, so we need to do a lot more.

We have heard about the shocking number of people who are innumerate and illiterate, and the same goes for people in prison. There are 84,000 people in prison at the moment, and we need to do a lot more for them to ensure that they get the education they need while they are in prison.

The hon. Member for Gosport mentioned libraries in prisons and the good they do. When local authorities up and down the country are looking for savings, it is shocking that one of the first and easiest targets they choose are libraries. “Let’s close the library”—well no; let us ensure that the libraries stay open, encourage more people into them, and use them for adult education classes so that people can become more literate and see the wealth of books available. That is one of the reasons people should want to learn to read, write and be numerate.

About 3 million pupils who leave school after GCSEs are ill-equipped for life, and, as I said, about 40,000 of people in prison are illiterate, and 55,000 are innumerate. We must do more to make education in schools more relevant to pupils so that they see why they need to read and write. Nothing surprises me more than when I go into a pub and see youngsters playing darts. They are able to add up what they have just scored and deduct it from, I think, 360. I am there with chalk and a board trying to do that, but they do it in their heads. They are so much better at it because it is relevant to them and that is why they are able to do it. On literacy it is the same with texting, and people substitute certain words for letters and so on. That may be okay, but life is not Twitter and we do not lead our lives in 140 characters. It is much richer than that, and we must ensure that people get the full wealth of knowledge and culture that is denied to them if they are not able to read and write.

I do not believe that teachers want demotivated classes with youngsters who lack ambition or hope, and where the only thing they look forward to is the “X Factor” on television. There are 25 letters in the alphabet apart from X, and if we combine them there is more wealth out there than there is on “X Factor”.

I was on the Council of Europe for five years, and nothing shamed me more than the fact that there were people from other countries who seemed to speak English better than we do. They came from Denmark, Sweden—a number of countries—and their ability to speak English as well as their own language, and probably Italian, Spanish and French while they are at it, was amazing. In this country, however, we have statistics showing that people cannot even speak our country’s national language. We must do more.

The hon. Lady mentioned stigma, and we must stop all that. People have not failed; we have failed them because they are unable to read and write. It is not their stigma but ours, and we—rather than those people—should have that stigma. We must correct that and give people opportunities to be able to read and write. Lifelong learning is important because education does not finish when people are 18 or 19, or when they leave school or university. It goes on for ever, and we must make opportunities for people to have lifelong learning.

The number of immigrants who have come to the country over the years is phenomenal and many simply do not have the skills to speak English. That should be a priority for us. I know we say that people should not come to the country and settle down unless they are able to speak English, but we must recognise that millions of people have come in who cannot do that. What are we going to do about that? Let us not deny to immigrants who have settled in this country, rightfully and legally, the opportunity to play a full role. Let us do more for immigrants who have settled in the country but who are not able to speak English.

When schools finish and the doors and gates are locked at night, it is a crying shame that they are not thrown open for all the people who want to do night classes. Community centres have been mentioned, but lots of schools up and down the country are closed and should not be. The lights should be on at 7 o’clock in the evening so that people can go there, and there are lots of resources, including teachers who would be willing to be mentors and teach those who want to read and write.

If we want people to have fuller lives, and if we want people to be better citizens and have better opportunities for employment, we must ensure they can read, write and be numerate. We must work harder. We cannot let people down as we have for decades.

My hon. Friend, as well as other hon. Members today, makes a powerful speech. Given the importance of the internet and the digital economy in helping people to access information and to learn, does he agree that it is vital that IT skills are linked to helping people to learn literacy and numeracy skills, including older people who have difficulty accessing public services? Does he recognise the important role that organisations such as Age UK play in that important task?

I agree with my hon. Friend—that is exactly what should happen. When I am learning French or Russian, I use the internet. There is an amazing amount of stuff in different languages to read on the internet. It is the same for those who want to learn English, but they need the IT skills to do that. Those things can be combined—lifelong learning clearly involves IT.

On that point, is the hon. Gentleman aware of an interesting innovation between Cambridge and Hertfordshire universities? They are working together on a new system that evaluates people’s competences. They begin with competences to start businesses. If people get through the evaluation, the universities give them courses to make them fit to do so. That is the beginning of an interesting process.

I was not aware of that innovation, but the hon. Gentleman shows us the potential that is out there, which we must use to its fullest. We cannot allow millions of people in this country not to live the fullest life they possibly can. They need to be given extra support. All hon. Members recognise that we have let a lot of people down for decades. They will say fairly well the same thing as I have said in the debate—that we need to do a lot more—but when will we start? If not today, when?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) on securing this important debate. She has worked tirelessly and done a huge amount on adult literacy. As colleagues have said, this is not a party political issue—it affects all our constituencies and all who live in our country. I have always passionately believed that education is a lifelong journey and not one that stops at A-level, university or apprenticeship level. Improving standards of adult literacy and numeracy is fundamental both to our economy and to the well-being of every man and woman who struggles with those crucial skills.

I should like to talk about an under-reported but hugely important project helping and training thousands of people at all levels to improve their skills through learning. Unionlearn, in collaboration with the TUC, trains thousands of union learning reps and has helped hundreds of thousands to train and learn through their union every year. Before entering the House, I had the opportunity to see first hand the difference the scheme makes to real people in the real workplace, and the brilliant results.

I apologise for being late, Mr Speaker.

When I was a relatively young man, I took great advantage of, and was very well served by, the Workers Education Association. I was a secondary modern schoolboy who left at 15, and the WEA had the important effect of broadening my horizons. Will the hon. Lady help us by telling us whether that organisation is still doing that good work? If so, are we helping it as we should?

The WEA is very active, and certainly in my area. It often uses the skills of people who have retired from full-time careers in education—they do a little bit of work here and there to help to train people. It is an active but undervalued organisation.

Union learning dates back to the 19th century, with the establishment of colleges for working people. More recently, the union learning fund, set up in 1998, distributed £150 million towards training and education, which helped to recruit many union learning reps and expand the number of people in training and education. The fund, which has supported more than 50 unions in more than 700 workplaces, has several key goals: to embed learning and skills so that they become a core strategic objective of all unions; to help unions form active partnerships with employers, which I will mention later; and to raise demand for learning among the low skilled and other disadvantaged groups. Colleagues have mentioned people using their peers to access learning. When people are vulnerable and find themselves in adult life without the ability to read and write properly, peer groups are a crucial tool to making that first step into learning.

Unionlearn exists because of a fierce belief that access to learning is fundamental to every person’s life chances, and that such opportunities should be available to everyone—the entire work force—regardless of background. The access to opportunity, and the ability to reach people who may not have been reached by others, makes Unionlearn and union-led education so crucial to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.

Approximately 20% of the adult population cannot read to a level that allows them to do their job effectively or gain a promotion, and more than 5 million lack a good GCSE or equivalent in English. In my experience, I have seen examples of incredibly gifted people who cannot read and write much more than their own name, but who have tremendous other skills that have enabled them to get through a workplace and end up at a senior level. One of the most alarming and surprising things I learned when I was involved with Unionlearn was that some incredibly senior managers could do little more than write their own names. Obviously, they have huge skills to have the ability to work around that and get to that point.

Substandard reading skills are strongly linked to poor writing skills, so many adults are prevented from helping their children with homework, which exacerbates the problem, because it is extended to the next generation. As I have said, some people are barred from career advancement because they are unable to fill out job applications. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) mentioned online learning and the internet. People need a basic understanding of English and writing to access the help available.

A Government-backed study found that nearly 50% of working-age adults in England struggle with maths. Innumeracy does not just affect people’s ability in the workplace, but follows them everywhere, from looking at price comparison websites to reading bus timetables. Alex Smiles Ltd is a great example of union-led training in my constituency of Sunderland Central. The firm employs more than 100 people. Its core activity is the gathering, processing and recycling of waste materials produced by the construction and manufacturing industries. It is a non-unionised workplace, and represents an increasing number of employers that Unionlearn and the TUC regularly work with through partnership working initiatives.

More than 16% of the Alex Smiles Ltd workforce have completed a numeracy qualification and 15% completed a literacy qualification at either level 1 or 2. Becky Smiles, the training and development manager at Alex Smiles, has said of Unionlearn:

“Every interaction has been positive and business-led, driven by making us a better, higher-performing workplace in every respect. The learning activity is making inroads to upskilling our people and addressing front-line business goals that have bottom-line benefits, too.”

Adult literacy and numeracy skills are fundamental to our economy, and to the life chances and well-being of every individual in the country. Unionlearn and other union-led projects give all people the chance to improve their skills, and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to sing their praises and raise awareness of that excellent scheme.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who covered all the great work that Unionlearn has done. I have asked to see that first hand in my constituency, but I have not yet had a reply to my request.

It is also a pleasure to follow excellent and thoughtful speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who has done some exceptional work in this area. Indeed, I was surprised by her calm, measured and constructive manner, when I would have struggled to hold back my anger at the fact that one in six adults is financially illiterate. The OECD figures are a disgrace, and we have robbed people of opportunity. We all have drivers of our politics—the issues that motivate us to do what we do—and this is one of my core drivers.

I went to a school that was bottom of the league tables and many of my friends were robbed of opportunities in life. As Members of Parliament we see from our casework people in real distress, arguably through no fault of their own but because they are simply not equipped to deal with the challenges that life throws up. My wife volunteered for two years at a job club and found people were not equipped to get jobs to give them opportunities in life.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one area in which numeracy has an incredible impact on people’s lives is that of payday loans at 1,400% from Wonga and various other companies? When people do not have the faintest idea what that means, they get into huge financial difficulties which cause great misery. If they were numerate, they would understand exactly why they should not take out loans at those exorbitant rates.

That is a brilliant intervention with fortune-telling skills, as that is exactly what I was about to say. Numeracy is not just about applying for jobs—it is about confidence, about being a savvy consumer and about dealing with things such as payday lending. We have had several debates on this and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) will also touch on that issue—although to be fair, most Treasury Ministers would struggle to calculate the APR on payday lending. We live in a complex world with marketing messages, and my hon. Friend and I are working on a paper at the moment about how consumers are not empowered. The markets are in control because consumers are not equipped to make the right decisions.

I want to talk about three areas in which we have opportunities to help people—financial education, work in schools and using libraries as hubs. On financial education, we have had an exceptionally successful cross-party campaign—235 MPs signed up—and I am delighted that as of September 2014 it will be a core part of the national curriculum. The key driver behind the campaign was the fact that 91% of people who get into financial difficulties say, “If only I had known better.” My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport pointed out that 50% of adults struggle with even primary maths skills, so it is no wonder that people get into financial difficulty. The campaign focused on four strands—schools, further education, higher education and the crucial vulnerable group, work on which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). That group is crucial because although we are bringing in the changes in schools, further education and higher education, some people will still slip through the net. The report will be published in the next couple of weeks and will contain important points for the Government to take up, so that we can ensure that the most vulnerable people are not missed out.

I am a big fan of the school reforms, which will drive up standards and include making grammar and spelling important in all exams; making mental arithmetic more important in primary schools; restricting the use of calculators; and upgrading maths in the curriculum. I was a maths fan in school, but I was in the minority, even though maths is incredibly important. The pupil premium is providing schools with opportunities to target resources to those most in need.

I had an inspiring visit to Seven Fields school in my constituency. As I have mentioned in previous debates, I had the honour of the Minister for Schools coming to visit after I had set out just how good the school is. To put it in context, it is in one of the top 5% most deprived areas and it was formerly a failing school. To give credit to the previous Government, money was provided to rebuild the school, which was the beginning of the process, but the fundamental changes came from the school reforms, which gave its inspirational head teacher the ability to make a real difference. Some 70% of the children are on the pupil premium and that money has been used—now that the class sizes have been almost halved to 17—to work with the community to get volunteers to come in and read one on one with the children. That has been done by providing a free Sunday roast on Wednesdays to the Penhill luncheon club, who work one on one with the children on reading and numeracy. It makes a huge difference.

Lately resources have been diverted to the nursery because, as the head teacher told the Minister for Schools and me, some of the children coming through have simply been abandoned in front of the television. Not only can they not walk, they have not even reached the first stages of crawling. They literally have to start again. When the children arrive at the school, they are 18 months behind the national average, but by the time they finish, they have caught up—giving those children opportunity.

Huge effort is put into selecting the best, most ambitious teachers, who want to go the extra mile to make a difference. We all know from our own time in schools how teachers who make the extra effort can make a huge difference. The school also provides a constructive and positive environment, including children taking their shoes off and treating it like their own homes. They also have opportunities to make visits beyond school to do things that they would not otherwise have the chance to do.

The head teacher still has a wish list of things that would make a difference. She feels that school holidays undo the great work that is done. Some of the children are upset that they will not be able to come into school. Before teachers start thinking that I am advocating a 52-week term, I should say that the idea is to open up the schools in holidays for summer camps on sport, literacy or numeracy, or for the Scouts and other volunteer organisations to use. PFI schools often have expensive charges for outside groups, which removes the opportunity for constructive work. The head teacher thinks that some of the children benefit from the almost family environment in the school, and should perhaps be held back beyond primary school age—perhaps up to 14 or when they are in a position to go to the local FE college or start an apprenticeship—because they need that sort of environment, perhaps because of their family background. As they go off to the traditional secondary schools, the influences and temptations away from the right path prove too great without family support—and the school can be a substitute for that.

The final, and perhaps contentious, item is the need for performance-related pay for teachers. My father was a teacher, as were my grandmother and grandfather, and many of my friends are teachers. We need to provide incentives for the very best teachers who make a real difference to people. I do not see why they should not be rewarded financially, because in any other profession they would be.

I wish to explore how the hon. Gentleman thinks that would work in practice. My son is doing a GCSE in business studies with two different teachers. If one is good and one is bad, how would we work out who got the pay rise and who got the sack?

That is a good point, and the key is that I would not do that, because I am a politician and what do I know? It would be the head teachers who decided. We should entrust them to run schools like any other organisation. The head teacher at this school was waxing lyrical about the inspirational teachers with extra enthusiasm and energy, and she should have absolute freedom to ensure that she has the very best teachers for those children from very challenging backgrounds who do not have the luxury of private education and who rely on this single chance in life.

The parents also need to be engaged. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport mentioned the role of parents. The school I am talking about has parental contracts. If parents want their child to go to the school, they have to play their part and engage with the school, to ensure that it is not only in school hours that the children benefit from the opportunities provided

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on libraries, and I think libraries have a big role to play in adult literacy, which might simply be by opening up the doors to volunteer groups in the evenings and when the library is closed. The summer reading challenge has made a huge difference in getting children to read six books over the summer, when previously they might not have read a single book—look at the number of adults who have not read a book in the last 12 months. Perhaps jobcentres could utilise the libraries to provide opportunities, even for those who need to start from scratch. I have advocated in other debates that we should open up school sports facilities for free to organisations that provide constructive, energetic activities for young people, and a similar principle could be applied to libraries.

The situation is a disgrace. We have to show urgency in our attempts to make a difference. People have one chance in life and, as all hon. Members will make clear, they are being robbed of it. That is a desperately poor situation.

First, I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to other hon. Members, for arriving late. I was in a Select Committee interviewing the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary so I could not be here earlier, but I wanted to speak in the debate and I am glad to have the opportunity to do so. I will not speak for too long, because others wish to speak.

I am particularly concerned about numeracy. I used to teach economics and statistics and am familiar with numeracy problems. Lord Moser, who is a splendid member of the other place, wrote a report some 15 years ago that I have talked about in the Chamber many times. He found that more than 50% of the population were innumerate. He illustrated that by saying that 50% of the population did not understand what 50% means. When I write articles for newspapers I do not just write 10% but “one in 10”, to make sure that people get the message, because not everyone understands percentages.

I have encountered many adults with numeracy problems. When I taught economics, the first question I would ask my students was: what is the difference between 1 million and 1 billion? Many of them did not know, so I said that a million is not very much and a billion is quite a lot. I used to ask, “How many houses can be bought for £1 million and how many houses can be bought for £1 billion?” In Luton, one might be able to buy five for £1 million and 5,000 for £1 billion.

Was my hon. Friend teaching in the US or the UK? The answer would be different if he taught in the US.

I was teaching in Britain, where of course 1,000 million makes 1 billion—let us get that straight from the beginning.

I met Lord Moser recently at a reception in the House of Lords. He is an elderly man now, but he still despairs of the problem of adult innumeracy. Adults are bamboozled by politicians because we throw numbers about all the time—all parties do it. A Front Bench spokesperson can say, “We are going to spend £20 million extra on the national health service.” Twenty million pounds is absolutely nothing in the scheme of things in public expenditure, but £20 billion is a significant amount. Politicians constantly bamboozle the electorate, knowing that they can be not very sophisticated at handling such numbers.

I used to teach elementary statistics to A-level students studying sociology. I used to do simple sums with square numbers to find the square root. For example, the square root of 100 is 10—that is quite easy. When one of my students said that nine times nine was 89 and 10 times 10 was 110, I realised there was a problem. I have another anecdote. The daughter of a good friend of mine wanted to be a nurse. She had various O-levels, so I said, “Why can’t you be a nurse?” She said, “I can’t pass O-level maths.” I asked her why not. She said that she could not do multiplication because she had never been taught it—imagine that.

We have to go back to a philosophy of education and teaching that was utterly misguided. My wife and my brother are both primary school teachers. In the 1960s, 1970s and, to a certain extent, the 1980s, rote learning of tables was regarded as anathema—absolutely forbidden. Complete and total nonsense. Of course, I angered many of my good friends on the left who thought I was some sort of authoritarian, because I thought that learning tables was a good idea so that people knew that 12 times 12 was 144—elementary stuff.

When I first entered the House in 1997, I raised this issue with the then Schools Minister, Stephen Byers. I said that we had to look at teaching methods and the interface between teachers and pupils, particularly in primary schools so that pupils learn numeracy properly at the beginning. He said, “Oh no, that would be too prescriptive.” Sometimes we have to be prescriptive. We have to say that some things work and some things do not work. Let us look at other countries where numeracy is better.

The international comparison table published in The Independent yesterday showed that we are slipping down the table, and that 16 to 24-year-olds are actually worse than the previous generation. We are now quite low down the table, which is very worrying. If we are to produce the engineers and the skills we need for the future, we have to address numeracy problems. Governments have to look at what works and try to ensure that that is what is applied in schools. It is not enough to reorganise institutions—creating academies and free schools and so on. We have to look at what is happening in the classroom at every state school, because we have a problem.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I will refer to as my hon. Friend, because he is a friend. I am delighted that he is speaking so passionately from such an informed background—it is very helpful. I wonder whether we have enough of a joined-up approach to adult illiteracy and innumeracy. I also wonder whether we use our libraries enough, and whether the Minister ought to be thinking about using such facilities and giving them a new lease of life.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention.

We should try to have one-to-one teaching for adults with numeracy problems. I have done some coaching and have found that it is often the simple things that fox people. Not everybody is gifted at mathematics, but sometimes people are puzzled because they do not realise that a division sum can be expressed in different ways: by having one number over another, or by having two dots on either side of a line. People get confused, but it all means the same thing. How many times does 10 go into 100? Whichever way we write it down, it will always be 10. We have to have one-to-one tuition. During my coaching and teaching I have seen the light that appears in people’s eyes when they understand something that has mystified them all their lives.

We have to look at what happens in the classroom between the teacher and the pupil. We have to ensure that teachers in primary schools are comfortable with mathematics, can handle numbers and feel at ease with them. A deeply worrying statistic from 40 or 50 years ago was that 60% of primary school teachers had failed O-level maths. I am not saying that O-level maths is the acme of success, but it showed that they were uncomfortable with the subject. If teachers are uncomfortable with the subject, having them introduce children to mathematics is not a sensible way to proceed.

It is clear from the statistics published yesterday, and from the Moser report some time ago, that we still have a problem. We are slipping down the league table and Lord Moser still has concerns. I hope that the Government, whoever is in office, address this problem by looking at teaching methods and finding out what works. We need to ensure that the next generation of children do not become innumerate like so many adults today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) on securing this important debate.

I have found myself heartily in agreement with every Member who has spoken. What the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said about basic standards in education chimes with the e-mails I receive from constituents and the feedback I hear frequently from businesses in my constituency. As a member of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, this is a matter of concern. It is raised with me by businesses in Worcester on a regular basis. On a national level, the CBI is concerned about the literacy and numeracy of school leavers, and how that feeds through to the challenge of Britain competing in the 21st century. We also face the specific challenge of improving the English language skills of first generation immigrants and ensuring that women, particularly those at risk of isolation, are able to access adult education—an important point we should not overlook.

I recently took part in an excellent inquiry run by the all-party group on literacy into how business, schools and government can work more closely together to improve reading and communication skills, and basic business literacy for young people. We have heard about best practice and I commend the report to colleagues, but we clearly need to go further if we want to eradicate the problems of illiteracy and innumeracy among the adult population.

As the motion suggests, low adult numeracy and literacy is a substantial cost to our country in opportunities missed and earnings limited. Helping people to reach a higher level of literacy, numeracy and work literacy will help to restore a culture where work always pays and where opportunity is open to all.

According to the National Numeracy campaign, 17 million adults are at only “entry level” in numeracy and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said, 5 million are at the same level in literacy, which means that they reach only the standard expected of a primary school leaver. After over a decade in which education spending rose sharply, that is a shocking statistic. The latest CBI employment trends survey showed that 35% of employers were dissatisfied with levels of literacy among school leavers—higher than it was in 2003, at the beginning of that period of investment.

This week’s report from the OECD should act as a wake-up call to anyone who is complacent about this issue. In particular, the worrying figures for 16 to 24-year-olds suggest that the problem has been getting worse in this country rather than better over the last decade and that the UK is falling further behind its competitors. For England to come 21st out of 24 industrialised countries for adult numeracy when we are the greatest financial centre of the lot is something that really should concern every Member.

Britain has at times been parodied as a nation of shopkeepers, and the retail trade is still one of the most significant employers in the UK economy. Our Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the future of retail, so we have heard a great deal of evidence about the changing skill-set required by the industry, but basic numeracy and literacy are absolutely non-negotiable.

KPMG research shows that adults with at least basic numeracy—level 1 or above—earn on average 26% more than adults with skills below that level. When controlling for education level, social class and type of school attended, there is still a 10% earnings premium for basic numeracy. These figures show how, if people were earning more money, we could reduce the deficit, help to raise tax revenue and help pay for public services. The research also showed that over two thirds of prisoners at the start of their custodial sentences had numeracy levels below level 1.

According to the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, adults with poor numeracy are two and a half times more likely to report having a long-standing illness or disability and are roughly twice as likely to report several symptoms of depression. Adults with poor numeracy are more than twice as likely to have had their first child while still in their teens. Dealing with low levels of numeracy can therefore help to reduce welfare dependency, crime and mental health costs.

So what can we do about it? We need to empower employers to work more closely with target groups in the adult population, as well as with school-age children to show the relevance of numeracy and literacy skills in the workplace and the opportunities they can bring. Local economic partnerships can play a key role in that, bringing the private sector together with some of the public sector organisations involved.

The Government are rightly enthusiastic, after the great campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), about putting financial education into the national curriculum—a key step in making numeracy relevant to many people who want a practical rather than an academic understanding of its importance. It will also equip people better to deal with the sort of problems people face with payday loans, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans).

We need to reject the lazy assumption that some people are just not mathematically minded and we need to target better support to those who suffer from confusion about numbers, just as we have over the years to sufferers of dyslexia in the literacy space. We need to make sure that numeracy is made relevant and literacy exciting—not just in schools, but at every level of education and skills. Campaigns such as the Reading Champions campaign, bringing sports personalities into primary schools to talk about the value of reading, do great work on this already, but there is much more scope for using role models at every level of the adult population to promote literacy and numeracy alike. We need to keep a vigorous focus on raising standards in education, which the current Secretary of State has done a lot to foster, while recognising that the school system alone can never deliver the solution for everyone.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) pointed out earlier, we need to support parents who want to read and do maths with their children but who may lack the confidence to do so or feel there is a stigma in admitting they need help. As the motion mentioned, not all the people we need to reach are going to access help through the further education sector, which means we need to make sure that community libraries, Sure Start centres and other community facilities play their part in providing help. I greatly agreed with the point made earlier about getting schools to do more in the evenings with parents and to reach out and provide help on these problems.

As National Numeracy has suggested, we need to achieve a broad cultural shift whereby everyone realises that, with effort and support, they can improve their numeracy. We must avoid creating greater stigma and focus instead on raising aspirations and seeking pathways to help.

We need to focus particularly on helping the most vulnerable, supporting innovative approaches in probation and through homelessness charities via the troubled families initiatives and early intervention services in order to get help to those who need it most. We also need to work on improving the transition to adulthood, as vulnerable people often find a sharp drop-off in the level of attention and support they receive on reaching adult age.

All those things are challenging to achieve but need to be delivered through a combination of innovation, Government activity and private and voluntary sector good will. I shall not detain the House further, as demand to contribute to the debate is high. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport on securing this debate. The motion is right to highlight the importance of this issue for our country; by addressing it, we will create greater opportunity for all.

I will obey Mr Speaker’s admonition to be brief, not least because I do not think I could hope to match the expertise already shown by other hon. Members.

I should like to say a few words about my own constituency experience, but let me first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) on securing this debate and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who made a very thoughtful speech. I agree with him that this issue should not be party political. I agree with him that Governments of every shade have failed to get to grips with dealing with adult education, illiteracy and innumeracy. I hope he will agree with me that the failures of the past must not be the yardstick for the future. When my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) asks, “When do we deal with this issue?”, I hope we will all say “Now” and I hope the Minister will say “Now”, too, when he replies shortly to the debate.

I am pleased to say that unemployment is falling in my constituency and is now lower than at any time since before the recession. The biggest barrier to entry to employment for young people in my constituency, however, is illiteracy and innumeracy. When I talk to local employers—small and medium-sized enterprises such as light engineering firms and chemicals or plastics firms—they tell me “Yes, we can find new 40 and 50-year-olds to replace the people who retire, but we do not have younger people with the right level of numeracy or literacy to replace our employees.” That presents SMEs in my constituency, and in the country, with a ticking time-bomb, as they will struggle to find the right people with the right skills to replace their employees. Unless we are able to educate young adults and the kids at school now, we will not succeed in the global race about which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor rightly talk.

We also face a challenge with communication. We all deal every day with constituents who raise problems with us via e-mail or letter. All too many of my constituents who write or e-mail me are older people. My office gets lots of phone calls from younger people with housing, immigration or tax issues, but when my office says, “Can you send us an e-mail or write to us to provide more detail so that we can fully understand your problem”, all too many respond by saying, “Actually, we would rather not e-mail and rather not write because we are not comfortable about doing that.” How can we hope to help our constituents when they cannot communicate effectively with us about their problems and concerns?

I believe that our libraries can offer much more training than they are at present. I urge the Minister to look at the connection between education and libraries, particularly with regard to technology. I am one of the people who are bemused by it. It is right to point out that this is a generational issue, but I think we could do much more in our localities through our libraries if only there were more of a joined-up approach to the problem.

Mystic Binley demonstrates once again his crystal-ball-gazing skills, as I was just about to come on to the issue of libraries. The local library in my constituency, provided by Staffordshire county council, offers free books to help adult readers. A local volunteer organisation, DIGIT—the dyslexia information group in Tamworth—provides support to those adult learners by providing them with reading buddies. DIGIT does even more by providing help for Tamworth’s young children falling within the scope of the dyslexia spectrum to improve their reading, writing and arithmetic skills. Academisation has also helped. My local head teachers now have more scope to decide what to teach, how to teach it and whom to employ. GCSE results at the Rawlett School, for instance, have improved significantly this year. However, more still desperately needs to be done.

We have the adult and community learning fund—to which I am sure the Minister will refer—the skills for life fund and the traineeship programme, all of them underpinned by Government and supported by money so that young adults can be helped to learn, but I must ask the Minister to consider two other issues. The first is the teaching and knowledge of dyslexia in our schools, which is at best uneven. Tamworth has some good dyslexia teaching schools, such as Wilnecote high school, but others are less good. That is because there are not enough teachers with the right skills, and not enough head teachers who know enough about the scope of the dyslexia spectrum to deal with young people who suffer from the condition. We also need to ensure that there is as much dyslexia teaching in primary schools as in secondary schools, so that dyslexia can be recognised and dealt with as early as possible.

The second issue, which I hope the Minister will consider during his discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Education, is the need for more vertical integration between primary and secondary schools. All too many students in my constituency go to secondary school at the age of 11 with a reading age of seven. They are doomed to failure at GCSE the moment they walk through the door of their secondary school. We need secondary schools to know as early as possible which kids face challenges so that they can help the primary schools to help those children, and the children can go to secondary school with a higher reading age and improve their chances of obtaining better GCSEs. We must ensure that children do not walk into a cliff face at the age of 11 because their secondary schools did not know who they were.

I think that if we do what so many Members today have suggested we do—and if the Minister at least takes on board the two points that I have raised—we shall be able to improve literacy and numeracy, and improve the life chances of so many of our constituents who, for so long, have been disregarded and have not been helped.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) on securing an excellent debate about an issue on which she has fought and campaigned for some time. Her speech reflected her expertise and passion. I also congratulate the other Members who have contributed to this valuable and serious discussion of an issue that continues to be significant.

The warnings issued by the OECD in its report make it clear that Britain faces a considerable challenge in aiming to raise the literacy and numeracy levels of, in particular, the most deprived people in the country. The report is unequivocal in identifying the need for England and Northern Ireland to address social inequalities, especially among the young, as a key reason for the fact that we are falling behind in that regard. It emphasises that although we in Britain make good use of our highly skilled talent pool, there is a stronger association between higher levels of literacy and good social outcomes here than in most other countries.

Although the motion provides some guidance in regard to the aspects that we should be considering, it is somewhat limited, in that it proposes an academic solution to what is largely a social problem. I entirely support its call for literacy and numeracy programmes to be made more accessible to the people who are hardest to reach, and its call for imaginative support for illiterate adults, but, to a degree, it seeks to address the symptoms rather than the causes of the current problem.

The hon. Member for Gosport provided us with an impressive list of statistics relating to the social and economic costs of illiteracy and the extent to which it disadvantages Britain in the global race. She also suggested giving jobcentres a mandatory role in dealing with illiteracy and innumeracy. I believe that, if jobcentres are to play such a role, they will need to change their relationship with the people whom they see as customers. Many people come to see me after visiting jobcentres, and it is clear to me that the current relationship is not likely to enable them to feel positive about jobcentres’ sending them in the direction of literacy. However, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has said that there is a potential role for jobcentres, and I think that the idea could be considered if the culture within them were to change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made an excellent speech. His passion for Caitlin Moran was clear for all to see, and I am sure that it will gratify her. He reflected, importantly, on the changing face of our economy, and on the fact that our economic and educational needs have, in some respects, become aligned with each other. As our economic needs change, it is vital for our educational needs to change as well. He made another important point about the huge potential for business people to serve as mentors in our schools. The Labour party is considering that proposal in detail. Business people have been serving as school governors in Labour-controlled Waltham Forest, and I should like to see more of them reflecting the needs of business in our education establishments.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) made such a brilliant speech that I wrote down four of his observations so that I could reflect on them. He pointed out that the issue of literacy and numeracy had dogged the country for many years, and that successive Governments had wrestled with it. Like other Members, he mentioned libraries. He also referred to the important issue of immigration.

Immigration has produced numerous economic and cultural benefits, but there is no point in pretending that it has been a one-way street. It has also posed significant challenges. As the OECD report made clear, in many cases there is a higher level of illiteracy among members of specific ethnic groups who come to this country, quite apart from the fact that English might not be their first language.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) was passionate about a project in her constituency, and about the excellent work that is being done there. Indeed, throughout the debate we heard about positive projects that are taking place in individual areas. It seems to me that if those projects could be joined up, they would work better as a result.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) made a plea for financial education. He too focused on the importance of libraries, as did the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley)—who, I understand, could be backed at 16/1 with Paddy Power yesterday to win the deputy speakership, but is now at 5/2. While I entirely endorse what he said about the role that libraries could play, the massive level of local authority cuts is causing them to close throughout the country. We cannot say that libraries should be doing more while at the same time ordering authorities to make the cuts that are leading to the closures.

I would make a similar point to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who referred to Sure Start. There have been huge cuts in Sure Start, 400 of whose centres have closed. It is estimated that a third of its funding has disappeared since the Government came to power. Although I think that the hon. Gentleman is right to ask about Sure Start’s role in relation to literacy and numeracy, I do not think that it can be taken out of context.

The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) asked when we will deal with this. When will we see this done? Will this be the Government who really make a difference? I am keen to investigate that question now.

The OECD report made it clear that Britain is above average in the achievement of level 3 and level 4 literacy in comparison with our European neighbours—ahead of Germany, the USA, France, Italy and Spain—but we have many more people than our competitors do who fail to reach level 1, which is people who are functionally illiterate. Adults at level 1 have a reading age of 11. I read today that The Guardian has a reading age of 16 and The Sun has a reading age of 11, and I share the concern of the hon. Member for Gosport that many of the one in six adults to whom she referred will be able to read The Sun but not The Guardian. That could explain a lot.

We face a significant challenge and we need to focus on the steps we are going to take to do something about this. We need to realise that social inequality is a key determinant of academic inequality.

I am tempted to give way, as I am always very keen to hear from my hon. Friend, and his attempt to intervene reminds me that I failed to mention his contribution on the importance of numeracy, particularly in rebalancing the economy. I was surprised and encouraged to hear that he has been annoying his friends on the left. That is not something I have always accused him of, but it is always good to have things revealed in the House.

We need to look at what is actually happening. There has recently been a big increase in child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 3.1 million children will be living in absolute poverty by 2013. Much of the progress that was made on child poverty between 1997 and 2010 is being eradicated and that is not going to reduce the social inequalities that this report tells us we need to address.

There have been cuts to local authorities and Sure Start centres, and further education funding has been cut by £260 million. The number of working poor is increasing. Countries at the top of the education table are countries that have a social democratic model of government. We need to learn the lessons from this report.

What would our approach be? First, we need to identify those groups in society who are most vulnerable to being illiterate or innumerate and put in place a series of guarantees to ensure they are not simply thrown into the job market and expected to sink or swim without the skills they need in numeracy and literacy. Any step that would see more children educated by unqualified teachers would be retrograde. We need to see steps to support people who are at greatest risk applying to all school leavers. Those who are not achieving the standards of literacy and numeracy that they should by the age of 16 will be given a chance to catch up with a guarantee of further study in those areas until the age of 18.

We also need to support Army leavers more. About 39% of Army recruits join with literacy and numeracy skills at level 1. The Army’s extensive apprenticeship programme has already done a fantastic job in improving the literacy and numeracy of many of those people, and one nation Labour would strongly support the Ministry of Defence as a leading Department in tackling that problem.

We also need to focus on our prisons. Some 48% of the prison population have a reading age of 11 or lower, so there needs to be a real focus on supporting people in our prison population to ensure they get the skills they need.

The answers to the problems are not purely pedagogical, however; they are very much social. When we still live in a society where people can be in work and in poverty and where the cost of child care can mean it still does not pay to be in work and where children can arrive in school at the age of five unable to speak, we should not be entirely surprised that we face this problem.

To address it, a one nation Labour Government will ensure that working parents of three and four-year-olds will get 25 hours of free child care a week, paid for by a banking levy worth £800 million a year. We will also legislate for a primary school guarantee that every school is an 8 am to 6 pm school. I agree with what has been said about making better use of our schools. We need to rescue Sure Start from the huge cuts it has had, and we need to work with experts to develop the best solution to overcome these stigmas and barriers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport on the excellent debate she has instigated and her contribution to it. She is right that this is a vital issue. A tremendous partnership approach is needed in order to improve it and to ensure we have greater opportunities for all, and to make better use of all of our people so we can start to fulfil the promise of Britain.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) in saying this has been an excellent debate and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and the other supporters of the motion. Not only has the debate been informed and valuable—there is now no need for me to read out many of the statistics I have to hand to set the context as they have already been given—but it is timely given Tuesday’s OECD report. It was a shocking report and it will reverberate down through the education debate in Britain for many years. I hope it will persuade many who are sceptical or resistant to the reforms being put in place to come onside and support more rigour, and support stronger maths and English within schools.

The OECD demonstrated that over 8 million people in our country lack functional numeracy and over 5 million lack functional literacy. While Britain is strong at the top of the skills range, on these measures we have gone from being about the third best in the world to about the third worst in two generations between 55-year-olds and 16-year-olds.

That statistic was given earlier today by the Leader of the House. The OECD report said we were third bottom of 24 countries, not third-bottom in the world. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead people. He is out there fighting for British jobs, and he would not want to tell people that the situation is worse than it is.

Absolutely. We are third from the bottom in the developed world, as surveyed by the OECD. We are 22nd out of 24 in numeracy and 21st out of 24 in literacy and however we want to cut those figures, they are bad.

I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard in this area, especially the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and its chief executive, David Hughes, whose lifelong work has been spent trying to drive up adult literacy and numeracy. So much of the solution is about high expectations and standards and, as a country, we have tried over the last decade and more to find one merely by throwing money at the problem. It is clear that while money is part of the answer, it is only part of the answer, and a lot of it is to do with making sure we get the right teaching to the right expectations with the right level of rigour.

This problem must be solved first in our primary and secondary schools. We can then try to solve it, for those who do not succeed at school, in colleges and further education, and then, of course, for those for whom that still does not work, throughout life. This problem must be tackled at all levels, therefore.

Let me set out some of the actions the Government have taken. The focus on numeracy and literacy in primary schools is crucial, but, as well as time spent on these issues, we have to make sure we have high expectations of children at a young age. We need to make sure that grammar is taught properly and that mental arithmetic matters—that we do not rely only on calculators, and instead the understanding of basic maths is inculcated deep in pupils. Then we must reform GCSEs and have a more stretching curriculum for teenagers, and then, for those who do not get the crucial C or above in GCSE, make sure they continue to learn English and maths. The introduction of the tech level and the tech bac will drive that among those who do not go down the A-level route. As announced this week, we are introducing a core maths paper that is somewhere between a GCSE and an A-level so that for the 40% who get a C at GCSE but do not continue to study maths there is a qualification that is not as big as a full A-level but allows them to continue studying maths.

I wonder whether the Minister is going to touch on teaching methods in primary schools and some of the points I made. Some of his ministerial colleagues and former ministerial colleagues were keen on examining teaching methods, particularly in primary schools, to make sure that we have got that right. If we do not get that right, we will not make much progress.

I could not agree more with almost everything the hon. Gentleman has said in this debate. He made a remarkable contribution and I was coming on to respond in more detail to it. I entirely agree that getting teaching methods that work matters, but what also matters is that the teachers believe in the methods they are using—that is what the evidence shows—and move away from what he called an “utterly misguided” philosophy of learning. I like him more the more I listen; thank goodness there are people on both sides of this House who think that it is utterly misguided not to stretch pupils and not to have rigorous and evidence-based methods of teaching.

We are also tackling levels of illiteracy among benefit claimants, introducing new conditionality to require the learning of English and looking towards introducing a concept for younger benefit claimants of “earn or learn”, so that we incentivise people into training rather than pay them so long as they do not train for more than 16 hours a week.

Apprenticeships and traineeships are, of course, close to my heart, and they increasingly require English and maths. Some people say, “If you go into an apprenticeship, you should not have to do English and maths because apprenticeships are for people who are going into jobs that do not require those things.” But there is almost no job that does not require a basic standard of English and maths. In this modern workplace—by that I mean around the country, not necessarily in this building, as it is not the most modern of workplaces—the level of English and maths required is vital.

The Minister knows I am keen on using community assets in a much more imaginative way. How might we do that in this context, particularly with libraries, which are very underfunded, as the shadow Minister stated? How might we improve that situation and have a more involved local community push in this respect?

I was coming on to deal with the role of community facilities, where I understand my hon. Friend is driving forward the argument. Academies and free schools are one way to help, because giving more autonomy to head teachers allows them to use their buildings as they wish. On libraries, managing community facilities more imaginatively is important, and a lot of that is down to the individual managers of individual institutions. I strongly support what he said about that.

Of course, good teaching of English and maths requires good English and maths teachers, so we are today announcing new Department for Education support for the national centre for excellence in the teaching of maths to develop a maths enhancement programme to upskill existing teachers of maths in further education. The programme will be delivered by professional development leads associated with the centres for excellence in teaching and training. We need more maths teachers, and we are on track this year to have trained more than 600 FE teachers. So we are constantly working to drive up the number of English and maths teachers, as well as the English and maths taught.

Above all, this comes down to school reform, because without excellent schools we will not solve this generational problem. I hope that the OECD report will have helped to build a stronger consensus behind our school reforms, which remain opposed—inexplicably—by some people who otherwise describe themselves as “progressive”. As the shadow Minister said, the OECD showed the problem of the link between deprivation and education being greater in England and Northern Ireland than elsewhere, but the problem is that poor education entrenches deprivation. Education needs to be the foundation of social mobility, and in the UK that is not happening nearly enough now. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the collapse that the OECD study showed in the results among 16 to 24-year-olds, where this country has gone from the top to very near the bottom. We are driving forward on making sure that we reform our schools system, bring in free schools, give head teachers powers under academisation and improve the standards of teachers. However, we have opposition, and I do not understand why people who otherwise call themselves “progressive” say that they are opposed to these things. I wonder whether we are going to get a change of heart from the Opposition Front-Bench team on so-called “unqualified teachers”, not least because the new shadow Education Secretary once was an unqualified teacher.

The report makes it absolutely clear that England and Northern Ireland need to address social inequalities, particularly among young adults—that was a key part of its recommendations, which is why I focused strongly on it. Of course I understand that educational inequalities can lead to social inequalities, but this report is saying that social inequalities will lead to educational inequalities.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to welcome the fact that inequality in Great Britain is at its lowest level since 1986 as a result of the efforts of this coalition Government.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made a passionate speech. I hope that this debate will not become party political because there is no need for it to be; if we all listen to what the OECD said and drive rigour and standards through schools, it does not have to be party political. He also mentioned mentors. We are reforming careers advice to make it about inspiration and mentoring, and to help brokerage between businesses and schools. If anyone had him as a mentor, I have no doubt that they would absolutely value that. He made many extremely important points, crucially recognising that this has not gone well for a long time and needs to be turned around. He said that we have failed to deliver the most basic of education over a number of years, and that is exactly what we are trying to turn around.

May I remind the Minister that I was also trying to get over the fact that we have been very successful for one section of our population, really expanding things, at the same time as we have been totally unsuccessful with, and almost wilfully neglectful of, the lower achievers?

Absolutely; I believe somebody once called them the forgotten 50% and they were indeed forgotten. That is no longer the case. Educational reform has to be about making sure that everybody can reach their potential. I was going to say that an intellectual error has been made in the past and we have to put it right. I am talking about the argument that because someone has a low level of education or they are undertaking a low-level qualification—level 1 or level 2—what they are doing does not have to be rigorous, stretching and high-quality. At every level of education we have to make sure that we get as much improvement in pupils as possible. We are trying to put right that mistaking of a low level with the “need” for low-quality and sloppiness.

It is fantastic and an honour to be answering the first speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) has made from the Back Benches for several years. He rightly argued that this is about the fulfilment of lives as well as about jobs and the economy. He, like my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), mentioned the importance of tackling the issues faced by those who have dyslexia, and I could not agree more. It comes back to the previous point: just because someone has dyslexia does not mean they cannot have decent English and maths. It makes those things harder to teach and we need different techniques for teaching them, but we should not have low expectations just because people find something difficult. He also mentioned the importance of the context for learning and, as the Minister responsible for apprenticeships, I often find that people who failed in English and maths in a formal setting thrive in them as soon as they encounter them in a job. That is because suddenly it matters whether or not they can do their maths. If they can, they can do their job.

The hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) mentioned Unionlearn, and I am grateful to her for highlighting it. The Government support it and fund it—it would be great to get some acknowledgement for that. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) talked, as he often does, about financial literacy, and it was great to be able to put that into the curriculum. I hope that it works and that we do not think that the job is done just because we have put it in the curriculum. We have to keep an eye on it and make sure that it really works. He also talked a lot about school reform, which is the heart of the long-term solution to the problem.

My admiration grows for the hon. Member for Luton North. I did not know that he was an economic historian until now.

It was going so well. Never mind, I will forgive the hon. Gentleman. I am a former economist, but I have repented my sins.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) talked about employer concern and the problems highlighted by the CBI, the FSB, the BCC and the EEF. I want to put the Government’s position on the record on one point. He said that there is sometimes an impression that people are not mathematically minded and went on to say that they should still be able to learn maths. The concept of people who are not mathematically minded does not exist anywhere else in the world. It is a peculiarly British cultural concept and we must eradicate it, because everybody can do maths. It is just a matter of how they are taught. I absolutely hope we can turn that around, although changing cultural perceptions takes time.

Many Members talked about probation and prisons and we are working hard to drive up English and maths in prisons. We are paying by results and outcomes rather than simply the number of classes taught to try to improve that.

The challenge is historic and is set next to an historic publication. The shock from the OECD’s report has brought up an objective fact, which needs to be answered. I hope that it has finally settled the debate between those who say that a constant increase in qualifications passed represents a constant increase in quality of education. Increasing numbers of qualifications matters only when those qualifications are of constant value and we know that they have not been. The evidence shows that we have a serious problem that has got worse in the past 10 years.

We have learned that, above all else, alone in the developed world, our 16 to 24-year olds are not better educated in English and maths than those aged 55 to 65. Yes, money is important in solving the problem, but money alone is not the answer. Expectations, rigour and challenge matter too. The solution will not happen quickly. It takes years to turn around schools, but then it takes years for those turned around schools to educate the next generation. It is a vital task and I hope that all parties and Members of this House can get behind it so that everybody in this country can reach their potential.

I thank the Minister of State and the shadow Minister for their words and thank colleagues from both sides of the House for a fascinating and valuable debate. We have heard some thoughtful and thought-provoking speeches, which have demonstrated a huge underlying passion for this important subject.

There have been some outstanding individual contributions. I am primarily grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Adult literacy and numeracy are a crusade for me and he has been steadfast in his support on every step of the journey. I feel only sadness that I was not at Swansea university when he was a lecturer there and that I missed him by some years, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), who had that great opportunity in life. I was also extremely honoured that we got to hear my hon. Friend’s speech from the Back Benches. It was outstanding and showed a depth of understanding of this important subject.

I am grateful to colleagues from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for their support. The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills takes the issue seriously and also understands that it is not just the responsibility of BIS to address the issue. That must be done across government and across society.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who is a hero in the world of financial education and has been a champion for the whole issue, asked why I was not more angry in my opening speech. I am angry. I am frustrated, sad and desperately upset that we have failed generations of people in this country through their education and through adult education. We need to grab this issue by the throat and shake it until it works, because people are being failed.

As the Minister said, the most staggering result of the OECD report is the fact that in the developed world we are the only country in which 16 to 24-year-olds have fewer skills in this regard than their grandparents. The most important point to come out of the debate is that this is not a party political issue. It is much more important than that. We must work on the problem for generations to get it right. There is no quick fix and it will not be solved overnight. We must have policies that will get it right far into the future. It cannot be solved quickly and it is not an issue that should be tackled by just BIS and the Department for Education, as the situation is cross-departmental. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions has plans to get as many people as possible off welfare and into work. That is a noble aim but one that must take account of the vast levels of illiteracy that prevent people from getting and holding down a job. We must put the systems in place to recognise that and to help them. The universal credit system, which will be coming in online, presupposes a certain element of not only literacy and numeracy but of computer literacy. That must be a huge concern. In the Ministry of Justice, where the staggering illiteracy rate among prisoners is no coincidence, the promise to reduce reoffending must go hand in hand with promises to tackle illiteracy and innumeracy.

It is an injustice that illiterate and innumerate adults are cut off from so much, whether that is a rewarding job or just being able to read their kid a bedtime story. That needs to be tackled jointly by the Government, society, community groups and charities—some amazing charities are working on the issue. We must ensure that the injustice does not continue into another generation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House believes that, with one in six adults functionally illiterate, the UK’s skills gap is preventing the country from fully realising its economic potential; understands that improved literacy rates not only have economic benefits but also have positive effects on an individual’s self-confidence, aspirations and emotional health and wellbeing ; notes that literacy rates for school leavers have shown little change in spite of initiatives introduced by successive governments over recent decades; understands that the social stigma attached to illiteracy and innumeracy often prevents adults from seeking the help they need, which means that signposting illiterate and innumerate adults to Further Education Colleges is not always the most effective course of action; recognises that literacy and numeracy programmes must be made easily accessible to the most hard-to-reach functionally illiterate and innumerate adults if valued progress is to be made; and calls on the Government to renew efforts to provide imaginative, targeted and accessible support to illiterate and innumerate adults.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. A senior member of the Government party in the other place said live on television at lunchtime that he believed that Royal Mail was significantly undervalued. Given that Royal Mail will enter the stock market system tomorrow and that taxpayers are set to lose out on anything from hundreds of millions to billions of pounds, is there any mechanism by which we could bring the Minister or Secretary of State to the House to explain to the public why the undervaluing of Royal Mail could lose the taxpayer millions?

That is not a point of order for the Chair, as there is no mechanism by which the Chair can decide Government business on the Floor of the House. I hesitate to suggest that the hon. Gentleman should write to the Minister, although there are Members on the Treasury Bench who have heard his comments. I am sorry to have to disappoint him by saying that that is not within the power of the Chair.