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4 February 2008

Signs of poor skills as early as five years old among adults with poor literacy and numeracy

Adults with literacy and numeracy problems showed signs of these difficulties as early as five years old reveals new research. The study also finds that a disadvantaged family and home environment had a critical influence on their success in gaining these skills.

Illuminating Disadvantage: Profiling the Experiences of Adults with Entry Level Literacy or Numeracy over the Lifecourse by Samantha Parsons and Professor John Bynner is published today by the National Research Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) at the Institute of Education, University of London. The research is part of the 1970 British Cohort Study, a longitudinal study that has tracked the lives of 17,196 people born in one week in 1970. It reveals the obstacles that the people in the study with poor literacy and numeracy faced throughout their education and the social and economic disadvantages that they experience as adults

At five years olds many of the adults in the study with poor skills were behind their peers in language development and visual and motor co-ordination tests. They were also less likely to have had any pre-school education or have been read to at home.

By the time they were 10 years old, many of the adults with poor skills had fallen further behind in English and Maths tests. However, schools often failed to identify the problems they faced or provide help to overcome these difficulties. Aged 10, only one third of adults with the poorest literacy and one in 10 with the poorest numeracy were receiving remedial help from their school. Their parents had also been less likely to show an interest in their education

By 16, adults with literacy and number problems were more likely to:

- report that they did not like school and want to leave at the earliest possible opportunity

- believe that on-the-job work experience was more important than qualifications

- hold the view that going into post-16 education simply puts off unemployment.

As well as experiencing a struggle to keep up educationally, people with poor skills often had a disadvantaged home life. As children this group was more likely to:

- live in rented or overcrowded accommodation; at aged five 28 per cent of people with the lowest levels of literacy lived in a household with six or more members

- have parents who did not hold any qualifications

- have a father in an unskilled or partially skilled job.

The research goes on to show that by age 34, people with poor literacy and numeracy faced many disadvantages in their working lives, home lives and in access to the digital revolution. For example:

- they had experienced more frequent periods of unemployment and more time out of the labour market, because of sickness for example

- they had received fewer promotion opportunities

- they had less access to on-the-job training

- men were more likely to be still be living with their parents

- women were more likely to have become mothers at a young age and to have had three or more children

- both men and women were far less likely to have access to the internet or have a computer at home.

Many adults with poor skills are able to turn their lives around with the right educational help, according to the report. It says that given the right circumstances adults who started their lives faced with the worst forms of disadvantages can, with proper support, transform their opportunities and ultimately their life chances.

Professor John Bynner commented:

“Identifying children who are falling behind in English and Maths at the earliest possible opportunity and investing in addressing these difficulties are both vital. Children are already tested at school and teachers usually know if they are struggling with English or Maths. If these children don’t get extra help they are likely to leave primary school without the basics, and there’s little chance that they will catch up or engage with future learning opportunities.”

“Family background also influences a child’s success in education. If a child’s parents hold some qualifications, are interested in their education and take simple steps like reading to them at home, then they are less likely to have problems with the basics. This is why greater investment in the basic skills of adults is so vital. It will not just help improve things for people who face the biggest disadvantages in the workforce and in life, it will also help ensure that their children face a brighter future and freedom from social exclusion.”

Ursula Howard, Director of the National Research Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy said:
“Adults with the greatest literacy and numeracy needs can turn their lives round with the right educational support. They can make real progress. Unfortunately many find it difficult to acknowledge their learning needs and continue to face the deprivation that goes hand in hand with poor skills. It’s vital to redouble the focus on this group of adults and provide more inspiring, flexible educational opportunities that they recognise as meeting their most immediate needs and the complex demands of their lives. Only then can we begin to tackle poor skills for the most disadvantaged, and achieve social justice for this marginalised group of people.”

Media contacts:

To arrange an interview, get more information or for a press copy of the report please contact:

- Liz Marshall, ImageWorks PR, 020 7953 7586, 07796697593 or
- Helen Casey, Executive Director, NRDC, 020 7612 6574 or

Notes for editors:

1. NRDC is the national centre dedicated to research and development on adult literacy, numeracy and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). It was established by the Government as part of Skills for Life, the strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills in England, led by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). NRDC is an expert and experienced consortium of 12 partners, led by the Institute of Education, University of London. It aims to provide an independent voice through rigorous and relevant research and development to inform policy and professional practice.

2. Illuminating Disadvantage is funded by DIUS as part of Skills for Life, the national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills in England.

3. For more information about NRDC, its projects and publications visit
the website at:

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