Minister highlights the link between poverty, inequality, exclusion and unmet literacy needs

April 24, 2021

Speaking at our AGM today, Saturday 24 April, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD said: “One in six Irish adults can’t read, or struggle with reading. This is not a figure I can live with. Next month, I will bring the first ever National Adult Literacy Strategy to government, currently being prepared by SOLAS in consultation with learners, education and training providers, and civil society groups.”

“We will deliver an inclusive strategy that is good for individuals with literacy needs, their families, employers and society as a whole. I am determined to see an end to unmet literacy needs, including digital literacy. My department will work across government to promote plain English and to support adults with the skills they need to navigate daily life, achieve their ambitions and reach their full potential, in work and at home.”

“I want to congratulate NALA on all it has achieved over the past 40 years and the real impact its work has on people’s lives. Particularly during the pandemic, NALA continued to assist people with key services which has made all the difference to quality of life for our people during a very tough time.”

Minister’s full speech at NALA’s AGM

Before I speak to the future, I want to look back at Ireland 40 years ago when NALA was born. It was a very, very different place – we had not long joined the European Economic Community (as it was then known, the word ‘Brexit’ didn’t exist), the marriage bar has just been lifted, socially and economically the nation was in many respects unrecognisable to what it is today. Since that time, as a country, we have seen remarkable progress for the benefit of our citizens and beyond.

The reason we are here together today is because in 1977, a group of trail blazing volunteers formed what was to become NALA with your official start as a fully-fledged membership organisation in 1980. Before that in 1973, the Murphy Report recognised adult literacy needs for the first time in the State. And during that same decade, Ireland signed an important international treaty – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

This Treaty recognises the right to education and the right to lifelong learning, of which literacy is a core component. It recognises that both the individual and society are beneficiaries of the right to education. So while we can all recognise what the right to education means to an individual, it is also a social right. Education, training and lifelong learning contribute significantly to promoting the interests of individuals, enterprises, the economy and society as a whole.

And here’s one of the most important aspects. The enjoyment of the right to fundamental education is not limited by age or gender; it extends to children, young people and adults, including older persons. And let me be clear about this, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy is an integral component of adult education and lifelong learning.

Covid and literacy

Some six years ago, in its 2015 recommendation on Adult Learning and Education, UNESCO acknowledged, “that  we  live  in  a  rapidly  changing  world,  in  which  governments  and  citizens  face simultaneous challenges which prompt us to review the conditions for realising the right to education for all adults”.

How rapidly changing that world is now, more than we could ever have imagined 40 years ago or even one year ago.  And in the stark reality of a global pandemic we see the sharp end of our shortcomings in meeting literacy needs:

  • People who cannot read or understand public health guidelines.
  • People without the experience and skills to enable them to fill in forms.
  • Parents for whom home-schooling is impossible.
  • People who are isolated from services and social contact because ‘online’ is like a whole other country to them, but they have no means to get there. We must remember too that many people with digital literacy needs have broader literacy needs.

I want to thank NALA for assisting people with your services during these difficult times. And I want to acknowledge here that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on all students in further and higher education. Disadvantaged and vulnerable learners have been more acutely affected. I secured additional funding for students in Budget 2021 and the monies secured under the Dormant Accounts Fund helped to mitigate the worst effects of COVID-19 for Traveller students transferring to and progressing within Higher Education. But we have more work to do as we start to re-open and get out students back into buildings and on campuses. I am determined to ensure that supports are there for learners who need them most.


Education advances equality

Education at every stage in life is the great leveler. The aims of education should be the full development of the human personality. And the State in recognising, championing and delivering on this – which I am determined to do – will protect the inherent dignity of our citizens and enable all persons to participate effectively in a democratic and equal society.

And why is literacy important to democracy, equality and sustainability?

Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world. On the other hand, unmet literacy needs adversely affect the enjoyment of other democratic rights. Across the globe, literacy is not only key to lifelong success, but is a precursor for people’s ability to vote, advocate for change and otherwise fully participate in society.

Just this week, we celebrated Earth Day and the UN Sustainable Development Goals also see literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning. According to UNESCO, literacy is a driver for sustainable development as it enables greater participation in the labour market; improved child and family health and nutrition; it reduces poverty and expands life opportunities.


Department work

The establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, and Science is a significant step forward as it presents huge possibilities for adult education. This is not a department for Universities.

My department has inclusion at its core, and aims to reach those furthest removed to bring them back into education to help them to not only reach their full potential academically, but to ensure that they have the skills they need to navigate daily life.

In July of last year, we launched the second FET Strategy 2020-2024. The strategy sets out a five-year roadmap for the sector which is built around three key pillars of building skills, fostering inclusion and creating pathways and aims to address the economic and societal challenges that will be faced over the coming years.

As we know, fostering inclusion is one of the core priorities of the strategy.  We know that adult education can have a transformative effect on a learner’s life irrespective of their age, background or educational experience. Organisations such as NALA demonstrate this by providing flexible, and accessible programmes to enable all learners to develop or to maintain their literacy skills.

As I mentioned above, technology can be intimidating for many people but it is a tool to engage us with our professional, educational and personal lives. Digital inclusion is a major priority for my department. Once the digital divide is bridged, a world of possibility is opened for everyone, even a world that is confined by public health restrictions. When you can pay your bills, get your weekly groceries, renew your prescriptions, and talk to your friends and family online easily and safely, you are included in a world of possibility.


National Adult Literacy Strategy

One in six Irish adults can’t read or struggle with reading. This is not a figure I can live with.  If this were to continue, we would be leaving people behind and I am not willing to stand over that. NALA has been to the fore shining a light on forgotten worlds where literacy and numeracy needs are hidden often in shame. Well, I think the shame is ours as a society. We can change this. We have never had a senior Minister with responsibility for this area. So, if not now, when? This is a pivotal moment we must seize together.

As you are aware, I have tasked SOLAS with the development of a 10 year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy. The strategy will take a whole-of-government approach and provide a framework to support individuals to improve their literacy, numeracy and digital literacy. The aim of this new strategy will be to ensure to ensure that everyone has the literacy, numeracy and digital literacy to meet their needs and participate fully in society.

I am determined to ensure that this new strategy makes a real difference. SOLAS have conducted an extensive consultation process which has included feedback from stakeholder organisations, communities and citizens via the online consultation process, bilateral meetings and focus groups.

It will be no surprise to you that the consultation process has highlighted the links between poverty, inequality, exclusion and unmet literacy, numeracy and digital literacy needs. It is also clear that people want more accessible Government services where information is easier to understand and where there are multiple ways to engage, for example by watching a video instead of having to read text, forwarding a voice message rather than an email, accessing remote medical appointments, etc.

I would like to thank NALA for the valuable contributions, expertise and input into this process, as well as their engagement through the interdepartmental stakeholder group which I Chair, the technical advisory group, and directly with SOLAS. I very much welcome and am listening to all you have to share with us.

This is a core priority for me in this new department which I plan to bring to Government for approval in May. My ambition is that the strategy will drive forward progress and streamline the work that is already being done across a range of Government departments, state agencies and wider stakeholder groups, to increase awareness of services for the public and to capture the contribution that can be made right across Government to deliver better literacy, numeracy and digital literacy in the adult population.

As I come to the end I just want to reiterate again the challenges of the past year, and to say that I sincerely appreciate that you were able to continue providing your essential service throughout these challenges.

To deliver this our first ever National Adult Literacy Strategy, we need ambition, creativity and partnership. This is not about who or where or what delivers a strategy. This is about people. I don’t want to start talking about barriers or challenges. I want to talk about people’s needs and how we as a government can meet those needs.

Everyone has a role to play in making the next 40 years a time when every adult can fulfil their potential and are not held back by unmet literacy needs.

Without a commitment, a focus and an ambition for full literacy, too many adults will be excluded from full participation in their communities and societies. As we reimagine our country and our world after Covid, we need all people participating fully so we rebuild on the basis of inclusion and equality for now and generations to come.

Three other takeaways from NALA’s AGM

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.[ii]

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.

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 an essential part of this resilience as the public need to understand ongoing public health messaging, access services online and identify fake news.

New thinking – new solutions

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 job markets change.

NALA has been calling for a new strategy to address these inequalities and is looking forward to seeing the Government’s new 10-year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy. Now more than ever it will be vital that we support people with literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs, so that individuals have the capacity to process information, make constructive choices, self-advocate and ultimately respond to external pressures and change.


For further information contact:

Clare McNally, NALA Communications Manager, 087 648 6292

[ii] 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.

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