“The number of UK adults who are functionally illiterate is estimated at 6 to 8 million…an estimated total of £81.312 billion is lost to the UK economy each year amounting to 3.75 per cent of the nation’s GDP.”
The World Literacy Foundation, 29 March 2011.

The background

A press release from the World Literacy Foundation (WLF) caught the attention of newsdesks across the world this week.

The claim that up to 8 million people in Britain may be “functionally illiterate”, with a cost to the UK economy of £81bn, made headlines in many newspapers.

That’s an awful lot of people who can’t read or write properly, and an enormous sum of money. What is the factual basis for this story, and who is really behind it?

The analysis

You have to do a bit of digging to find out that this “news story” is essentially more than 15 years old.

That reference to the chequebook in this Mail Online headline is a bit of a giveaway. The use of cheques has fallen by about 70 per cent over the last 20 years, according to the Payments Council, so it’s neither surprising nor important that people don’t know how to use them.

The reason the WLF report mentions cheques is because it’s all based on research carried out in 1996, when Oasis and Blur were still duking it out in the charts, England were losing to Germany on penalties and we were all merrily signing cheques.

The WLF actually cite this article, written by an amateur contributor to a local BBC website in 2005, as the source of their claim that 6 to 8 million people are functionally illiterate.

That piece was based on findings from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which interviewed 3,811 people and evaluated how well they were able to carry out everyday admin tasks like map reading, filling out job applications, calculating the interest on a loan, balancing a checquebook and, ironically, understanding news stories.

Some 21.8 per cent of the UK sample were judged to be at level 1, the lowest level, putting us in 14th place out of 20 countries on that particular measure.

If that percentage were true of the entire working-age population, it’s true that you would get around 8 million people.

But the 21.8 per cent were not “illiterate”, they were simply at the lower end of the statistical curve.

And academics point out that there are always problems making international comparisons with standardised tests of this nature. If cheque books were already on the way out in 1996 in Britain, for example, but still ubiquitous in Switzerland, the British people would have found it harder to pass the test.

The IALS methodology was heavily criticised by researchers led by Harvey Goldstein, now a doyen of the Royal Statistical Society. The team concluded that IALS stats “should be treated with caution at national level and more so at an international level”.

So rather than saying, as one article did, “Britain has up to eight million adults who are functionally illiterate”, it would have been more accurate to say: “More than 15 years ago, 21 per cent of a small sample of people were found to be at the lower end of the scale of literacy, according to a questionable piece of research”.

What about the economics?

The WLF say the cost of this supposed mass illiteracy is £81bn. They explain that this 3.75 per cent of UK GDP. We have no ide how they came up with that precise figure.

Their report links to this study by UNESCO which looked at three regions in Latin American and suggested that illiteracy – as measured in a completely different way to IALS – was costing the local economies up to 0.4 per cent of GDP.

WLF say they have used the same mathematics but scaled up the effect and assumed that the cost to most developed countries will be 2 per cent of GDP. In the UK it will supposedly be as high as 3.75 per cent.

They say this is because “the financial impact was found to be greatest in developed economies due to loss of income earning capacity of an illiterate person, loss of productivity to businesses and the high level of social/welfare spending”.

The logic of this is that there will be a notional loss of income if people have lower skills, and that literacy is so good for society that the state would spend less money on crime and benefits if people could read better.

The first point sounds like common sense, but the second one is less easy to follow.

It sounds to us like a variation on the old FactCheck sin of confusing correlation with causality. In other words, there may be a link between crime, poverty and illiteracy, but that doesn’t mean that one of things causes another.

Poor people may tend to be less literate, and they might be more likely to commit a crime, but that doesn’t mean that raising levels of literacy will remove the root causes of poverty and lead to less crime.

What do the experts say?

Dr Bryan Maddox, a University of East Anglia literacy expert and advisor to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, told FactCheck: “There is little evidence that the way people score on a standardised literacy assessment would tell you much of any consequence about the stability of their families, or their contribution to the economy or society. It is mere speculation.

“Many of the causal assumptions in the report are speculative, and not robust enough to survive even the most rudimentary academic analysis.”

Dr Jan Eldred, who chairs the UK Literacy Working Group, said she preferred to use statistics on adult literacy published by the government last year, which show that there are about 5.1 million people who were at the lower end of the skills curve.

She pointed out that those people could not be labelled “illiterate” and said there “no quick answers and easy fixes” to the problem. Some of those people could have a learning disability like dyslexia, so it’s not necessarily a sign that we’re in the midst of some kind of educational crisis.

Government research that accompanied this data concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” that an increase in literacy for adults would lead to significant gains in earnings or employment.

Who is behind this story?

Drs Maddox and Eldred are among many leading literacy experts who will not be attending an event heavily trailed in promotional material released by the World Literacy Foundation.

The World Literacy Summit, as dutifully reported by most news outlets the covered the “8 million are illiterate” story, takes place in Oxford from April 1-4 and is billed as an event that will bring together “the world’s leaders in the fields of literacy and development”.

In truth, entrepreneurial figures will play more of a role in this conference than senior British academics in the literacy field, who have generally shunned it.

One of the few exceptions is Professor James Tooley from Newcastle University, known for his “ground-breaking research on private education for the poor in India, China and Africa” – research that has led him to set up educational companies in all of those places.

Also included in the £1,385 registration fee is the chance to hear Dr Donald Green from Ferris State University, Michigan, whose areas of interest include “marketing to non-traditional student populations”.

Dr Green and two other speakers, Andrew Kay and Dr Anthony Cree, are also directors of the World Literacy Foundation, which they say is an “independent not-for-profit charitable body”.

Mr Kay told us “the Summit is neither a private limited company nor a profit-making venture”, although a quick search in the Companies House register appears to suggest that he is mistaken on the first point.

The conference is sponsored by Pearson, the publishing giant which happens to sell the kind of textbooks and assessment systems that the World Literacy Foundation are calling for governments to invest in.

Pearson International’s CEO John Fallon is widely quoted in the promotional material.

He doesn’t make any reference in his speech to company’s recent woes in the US, where investigators are looking into allegations that Pearson’s not-for-profit arm broke the law by paying for overseas trips for the same state educational officials who dole out lucrative contracts to various companies.

The publisher has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

A Pearson spokesman also denied that the World Literacy Summit was intended to promote the company’s business interests, saying: “The World Literacy Foundation is a completely independent organisation. They often bring on board different corporate sponsors, and Pearson obviously has an interest in promoting literacy. This is an independent piece of research by the World Literacy Foundation.”

Mr Kay told us: “All the entrance fees are used to cover the costs of providing accommodation, venue hire and food and drink for our guests as well as paying the similar costs and travel expenses of our speakers.

“We have also provided full and part sponsors to many people from disadvantaged countries and organisations to help them attend the conference. Any remaining fee will be fed back in to the WLF literacy programmes.

“We approached Pearson, along with other businesses to be involved as partners to the Summit. The support Pearson has offered has enabled the us to sponsor 20 people to attend the conference from developing countries.

“Pearson provided WLF with support from Blue Rubicon – their UK PR agency- as sponsorship in kind to help promote the Summit, and more importantly, the wider literacy issue.”

By Patrick Worrall