Talks start on way to tackle adult literacy, numeracy and digital divide

July 20, 2020

On Wednesday 22 July, the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) is launching three new reports on adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs in Ireland.

The reports provide research evidence and solutions on how to address literacy, numeracy and digital inequalities that negatively impact on Irish society and the economy.

These inequalities were highlighted most recently when the pandemic containment measures were introduced. In the main, workers with low educational attainment were the worst impacted by the restrictions and suffered the highest numbers of unemployment.  Similarly, those with low literacy, without access to technology or digital skills had the greatest difficulty supporting their children’s learning, were often the hardest to reach with correct information, and felt isolated.

NALA called for, and recently secured, a commitment in the Programme for Government to develop and implement a new 10-year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy, and digital skills.

NALA hopes that the reports it is launching will be used to inform this new strategy. The reports are being launched at a webinar with key stakeholders in further education and training, social protection and community development, to support discussion about what the new 10-year strategy might look like.

The main report ‘Literacy for life’ outlines a Whole-of-Government approach to supporting adults improve their literacy, numeracy and digital skills. The approach focuses on improving skills to build personal resilience, so that individuals have the capacity to process information, make constructive choices, self-advocate and ultimately respond to external pressures and change. With this approach all government departments have a role to play in closing the nation’s literacy, numeracy and digital skills gap. The report was written by TASC, a Think Tank for Action on Social Change.

“If there’s one thing we learnt during the pandemic, it’s that many people struggle with understanding and accessing information. For those with low literacy or digital skills, it is especially difficult. While some families were able to support their kids learning online, many parents struggled with understanding information from schools. Third-level institutions moved quickly to deliver their courses virtually but often those attending adult literacy education classes didn’t have access to technology. Indeed many callers to our helpline simply wanted help using technology to stay in touch with family.”

“That’s why now more than ever we need to work together to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills in Ireland, to create a more equal and inclusive society. In our reports we have researched best practice in other countries (and you’ll be glad to hear they’re not all Scandinavian!), and have put forward a new approach to closing Ireland’s skills gap, which we hope will be used when developing the governments new 10-year strategy,” says Dr Inez Bailey, NALA CEO.


Speaking at the launch Roisin Doherty, Director of Inclusion, @SOLAS said: “The COVID 19 Pandemic has clearly shown that key competences and, in particular, digital competencies are not just a career asset but are essential for everyday living. Further Education and Training will play a crucial role in supporting Ireland’s post-COVID recovery and the recently published new FET Strategy ‘Future FET: Transforming FET’  aims to address some of the key challenges we face including the digital divide, female participation and the skills mismatch we are seeing. SOLAS are delighted to be supporting the promotion, encouragement and development of key competences for life-long learning for everyone.  Key competences such as digital skills, digital well-being, literacy skills, soft skills and English Language skills that are essential to all citizens for personal fulfilment, a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, employability, social inclusion and active citizenship”.

Roisin Doherty further added that: “The development of key lifelong learning competences for all, delivered through inclusive learning environments is at the heart of our new national FET Strategy that focuses on building skills, fostering inclusion and facilitating learning pathways. SOLAS looks forward to working with all our partners to help realise the ambitions of all learners.


Top three takeaways from NALA’s reports

Literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs in Ireland

In Ireland, 18% (one in six) of the adult population (18-65) are at or below level 1 on a five-level literacy scale. 25% (one in four) are at or below level 1 for numeracy.  55% of the adult population has low digital skills. This means they may struggle with reading text, doing simple maths or searching and understanding information online.*

People with the lowest skill levels have low educational attainment, earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed and report poor health. They are less likely to vote, trust others, and understand health or other information. This costs individuals in terms of lower life chances and society in terms of increased costs for social services and supports.

*CSO (2013). PIAAC 2012 – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies: Survey Results from Ireland and Cedefop (2020) – Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways. Volume 1: adult population with potential for upskilling and reskilling. 

Linking literacy and resilience

Increasingly our international counterparts are focusing on the link between basic skills and a nation’s resilience. For example, in the current pandemic, strong literacy, numeracy and digital skills are essential as part of this resilience as the public need to understand ongoing public health messaging, accessing services online and identify fake news.

Low literacy levels are directly related to poverty, misinformation and a reliance on social transfers. Higher literacy allows people to engage with public institutions; to understand and act upon new information; to use technology; and to seek better employment opportunities, especially as the job market change.

This thinking fits with the ‘capabilities approach’ taken by other countries which concentrates on improving and tracking what people are actually able to do, their future capabilities and their capacity to respond to external events and forms of change.

New thinking – new solutions

Currently there are nine Irish government departments operating under multiple strategies that concern adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills. However, there is no overall coordination, sharing and aligning of approaches to meet the scale of the problem.

Other European countries, such as the Netherlands, that are successfully addressing the skills divide, have taken a more holistic and cross-departmental approach which NALA believe would be very achievable to implement in Ireland.  This would involve establishing a framework that crosses all the nine government departments that currently work on adult literacy – one which incorporates a relationship between investment in capabilities (literacies), learning outcomes, and resilience impact.

In order for this to be realised, all departments would need to address adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills as a core capability as it relates to building resilience. This marks a slight departure from previous work and national strategies that focus primarily on labour market needs.

For further information contact:

Clare McNally, NALA Communications Manager, 087 648 6292


Read NALA’s reports

Literacy Now:

Report examining key policy and practices in adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

Literacy for Life

Report outlining a Whole-of-Government approach for investing in adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills – written by TASC (an independent think-tank whose core focus is addressing inequality and sustaining democracy).

Literacy Impact

The aim of this research report is to identify indicators to measure the outcomes of literacy strategies and initiatives in Ireland.

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