Public Affairs

TRADE UNION DESK: The enduring literacy gap

Recent coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement brought back a story I reported back then about the rate of adult literacy in Northern Ireland, writes John O’Farrell, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

The hook of the story was that over one-quarter of all people with the right to vote could not actually read and understand the document we voted on in the 1998 referendum.

In February 2023, the latest tranche of census results were delivered, including the sobering figure that just under a quarter of the adult population would struggle to comprehend the highlights of the Windsor Framework. These are people with no qualifications, and yet, it should be both recognised and celebrated as a significant improvement than a decade ago. Back in 2011, the Census revealed that 29.1 per cent of the population had no qualifications, compared with 23.8 per cent in 2021. That is 56,200 more people with better life chances.

But that is still too low. Many of the people with low or no qualifications are older people who may have left school 20 or 30 years ago and will have worked (if at all) in low-skill, low-status occupations, with little opportunity for updating or upgrading their skills. The UK skills survey shows that people working in ‘professional’ jobs have far greater access to education and skills to improve their output or simply increase their ‘wellbeing’.

The Economist ran an article recently scolding British business for not training their staff, “spending only half as much on training per employee as European ones. They train fewer workers and give each of them less time in class”.

This is a long-term problem, and has contributed to the unhappy statistic that only Spain is worse than other rich countries in the percentage of its workers in jobs requiring only a primary education. We are a low-skill economy, and various wheezes over the years to improve things have had mixed results. Train to Gain under the last Labour government was a flop, while the Tories’ plan was the Apprenticeship Levy, a 0.5 per cent tax on businesses (and public sector services), which smacked of the austerity tactics of George Osborne, with the ‘savings’ from the taxpayer being outsourced to employers, many of whom simply deducted the cost from their existing training budgets.

The Economist’s summary echoes what unions have been saying already: “Numbers have actually fallen… Many of the new ‘apprenticeships’ that they are funding look a lot like pre-existing programmes, rebadged to qualify for the cash. Some courses have just become more expensive.”

Meanwhile, the background grinding of austerity wore down the system, in particular on capital spending (which is where the infrastructure of education for all ages stands or falls). As was recently observed by the Nevin Economic Research Institute, “there was a boost to capital spending in 2019/20 which brought the total spend to within £10 million of the 2009/10 spend. However, capital spending fell back in cash terms in 2020/21 and was £137 million or 9.2 per cent below where it was in 2019/10 in real terms. The cumulative loss in capital spending in the 10 years to 2020 was £4.2 billion. It was estimated in 2020 that the Northern Ireland Executive has a backlog of capital expenditure projects totalling £5 billion, and this is likely to have increased substantially in the years since.”

Fortunately some programmes were spared being cut here, as their value was recognised by Department for the Economy, unlike some of the terrific educational projects funded under ESF and still awaiting news whether the UK’s Department for Communities and Levelling Up will continue their existence.

Since 2002, NIC-ICTU has managed the Union Learning Fund (ULF) to promote activity by trade unions in support of the Government’s objective of creating a learning society, with a particular focus on workers benefiting from essential skills (maths, literacy, ICT), and with creating a pathway to higher levels, right up to degrees from the Open University (OU). In March 2023, OU and ICTU launched an online resource, ICTU Learning Hub, with free, flexible, distance learning content designed to support employability and upskilling. The Hub is part of The Open University’s free learning site OpenLearn.

Two years ago, in a fit of spite, the Tory Education Minister Gavin Williamson MP scrapped funding for the ULF in England. Wisely, the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has retained the service, as it is a proven and cost-effective measure for reaching the very adults highlighted in the Census.

Every minister overseeing ULF (Declan O’Loan, Carmel Hanna, Reg Empey, Danny Kennedy, Stephen Farry MP, Diane Dodds MLA, Paul Frew MLA, and Gordon Lyons MLA) acknowledged its value. It has plenty more work to do.

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