One in four adults lacks basic literacy and numeracy, while 4,000 teenagers leave school each year without the same skills, a major report confirmed today.
And there has been no independent assessment of literacy and numeracy levels in the province since 1996.
The findings by Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland Kieran Donnelly were immediately branded a deeply depressing wake-up call.
The Audit Office report on Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy found that £40m was spent on the problem over the last seven years, with an additional £30m earmarked for the Essential Skills scheme over the next two years.
It has been more than a decade since the first – and only – adult literacy and numeracy survey was carried out here. The results of the next survey which the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) has agreed to participate in will not be available until 2013.
Today’s report calls on DEL to consider how it can obtain an objective measurement of the standard of adult literacy and numeracy on a more frequent basis.
It says: “Until further research is undertaken, the impact of government intervention on the Northern Ireland skills base will be difficult to determine.”
SDLP public accounts committee member John Dallat described the report as “deeply depressing and a wake-up call for educationalists”.
DEL’s Essential Skills for Living strategy was introduced in October 2002 as a response to the 1996 survey’s findings. Between then and July 2009 just over 54,000 people enrolled in essential skills courses and of these 34,000 achieved one or more essential skills qualifications.
A total of £40m was spent on the programme to March of this year and a further £30m is budgeted over the next two years.
DEL welcomed the Audit Office report and said it is “fully committed to ensuring the continued application of resources to address essential skills”.