Speech at the NALA Adult Literacy Awareness Week
21st September 2015
It is a great pleasure to be here this morning for the commencement of National Adult Literacy Awareness week. I would like to thank Inez Bailey for inviting me to join you here today and all of you for that generous welcome.
This important week commences with today’s public seminar entitled ‘Learning and life chances: promoting equality through basic education’. I think it is fair to say that progress has been made during recent decades in Ireland in making education, including higher education, more accessible for our citizens. It is encouraging that such progress is being made, both in the levels of participation in education and in the development of services and infrastructure to assist those who have traditionally faced obstacles on the path towards achieving their full educational and personal potential.
There remains, however, a considerable distance to travel in this area if we are to achieve equality. In 2013, an OECD survey showed that literacy levels among Irish 16 to 65 year olds were below average with up to one sixth of Irish adults having difficulty understanding basic written text. I have spoken recently about how this inequality in literacy raises very fundamental questions about the nature of our republic.
Literacy, as a gateway to participation in society, is a fundamental right and must be a priority for all who are concerned with human rights and equality. Recognising it as a right carries with it an obligation on the part of the State to ensure that the necessary interventions are put in place at the most effective stages, which means as early as possible.
In a global and technological age, the definition of ‘literacy’ cannot, of course be confined to reading and writing, but must also encompass the ability to understand and engage in many means of communication including spoken language, broadcast media and digital media.
We are also becoming increasingly aware of the importance of numeracy skills and mathematical reasoning in problem solving and meeting the day to day demands of life.
In a world where decisions made by powerful bodies and institutions can have enormous effects on the lives of individuals, I have also made the case that basic literacy in relation to economics must also be a prerequisite for empowering citizens to play an active part in the political and public life of their country. Failure to achieve this literacy has created a growing sense of detachment and disengagement from democratic processes and democratic policy options, as publics feel they are the passive objects of with what are perceived as imposed technocratic solutions.
All of these forms of literacy – in relation to technology, communications, politics and economics - are important; but they all are founded on the importance of access to written information and the ability to read and understand text. At its most commonly understood level, illiteracy and exclusion from reading creates a deeply shadowed world which denies its inhabitants the ability to communicate in the most very basic ways.
Approximately one sixth of our population cannot read a text message, send an email, use a timetable or a map or an ATM machine, or avail of so many of the tools which are necessary to navigate and ease our way through daily life. Some parents, because of their illiteracy, cannot read their children a bedtime story or help them with homework or sign a birthday card or read a menu in a restaurant. Confined to low paid, low skilled employment they cannot fulfill their potential, or they may find their pathway to a better career strewn with barriers and obstacles.
And, sadly, it is all too common for feelings of shame, low self esteem, a sense of isolation and a fear of being ‘found out’, to haunt the lives of those who struggle in a society which still attaches a stigma to illiteracy. Indeed, in many cases illiteracy is carefully concealed, not only from employers and colleagues, but also from partners, children and close friends.
For others, although they may have left school with basic writing and reading skills, the rapid progress of technology has placed them on the wrong side of a digital divide which has emerged between those who can access and make use of new technologies and those who can’t.
The issue is how new technology, particularly in communications. For example, how citizens access services is a fundamental moral and political choice. As more and more information becomes available exclusively on-line and an increasing array of forms documents are required to be accessed, completed and submitted electronically, there is a real danger that as a society we will unwittingly create a new layer of inequality, and a growing isolation for those who find themselves struggling to overcome that digital gap.
Helping such fellow citizens of ours requires great skills, skills of the heart as well as skills of the head. I have admired and so many who have given this task their empathy, their patience and their love.
As a Republic and a Democracy we have a duty to create an Ireland where citizenship is based on participation and rights, and where the value of a citizen, as carrier of those rights, is respected. It is a concept based on an understanding of the State as a shared responsibility, rather than an abstract entity. A true republic must be built on principles and policies which recognise the common welfare, and which place the needs of community and public at the centre, rejecting the limitations of a narrow individualistic concept of citizenship.
We cannot claim to be such a place when some of our citizens are failed by a society which allows them to be deprived of that most basic of civil rights; the ability to communicate fully and to have an effective voice in their communities and in their society. A culture which accepts that citizens will fall through the cracks, will drop out of its education system unable to read or write, will become disengaged and disenfranchised at an early age cannot call itself a true republic.
At the very heart of republicanism, in its original sense, lies the principle of participative citizenship, and the right of all citizens to be represented and to have their voice heard. We have a responsibility and a duty to enable all members of our society to receive the education that will allow them to become informed participative citizens. Indeed, if we are to become a true Republic, based on the sovereignty of the people, it is vital that we ensure that members of our society are equipped with the skills to question and challenge decisions made by individuals and institutions in positions of power and authority, ensuring such decisions are ethical, based on fairness and not on any privilege derived from wealth.
There can be no room, in such a vision of citizenship, for obstacles or that hinder or even prevent full participation due to poverty, discrimination, lack of basic competencies and lifelong learning opportunities or any form of illiteracy that leaves people vulnerable to prejudice, inequality, abuse or exclusion.
Organisations such as NALA, its workers and its volunteers, and events such as this, are critical to the achievement of such a citizenship. For thirty five years, NALA has worked, with enormous dedication and commitment, to ensure that people with literacy difficulties can access the learning supports they need, and to advance adult literacy policy through advocacy and through engagement with government departments and relevant organisations.
As you will be aware, despite the unacceptable levels of illiteracy that persist in Ireland, the OECD survey did discover that we were one of only five countries surveyed to have reduced those levels since the 1990s. I am confident that positive news is due, in no small part, to the valuable and tireless work of NALA. What it tells us of those other countries surveyed where illiteracy is increasing is deeply troubling for their citizens.
Today’s seminar is yet another important and constructive undertaking by NALA, one which will I know move us further down the road to the removal of barriers for people with literacy difficulties. Your programme is an inspiring one and includes discussion on vital issues such as the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education and the role of further education in increasing opportunities for employment. It reminds us that illiteracy is a complex issue requiring many different types of support. But it also reminds us that education is key in the battle against illiteracy, including early identification and intervention
Time and again, research has shown that children whose reading skills start to fall behind at an early age struggle to catch up. We know too that children who do not learn to read, write and communicate effectively are less likely to complete a second level education and more likely, as adults, to be unemployed or trapped in low skilled jobs. There can be no doubt that the development, from an early age, of good literacy skills is fundamental to both the life chances of each citizen and to the development of an equal society. In my visits to prisons, for example, I note the significance of illiteracy in recidivism and drug dependency.
In light of this, perhaps we need to reflect on our current approach where investment in education which tends to be concentrated on the later years, while at the same time Irish spending on childcare and pre-primary being the third lowest in the OECD. Early childhood is a significant opportunity for learning, and the knowledge and skills developed at this time can strongly influence later learning experiences.
The Department of Education and Skills National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People
2011--‐2020 makes it very clear that literacy and numeracy skills are developed along a continuum from early childhood, through primary and into post--‐primary education. Each stage brings with it a critical point of development and it is vital that children are effectively assisted throughout their school career, and that timely interventions are made where any child is perceived to be at risk of falling seriously behind their peers in any area of literacy.
It is only through such timely intervention that we can break the cycle of inter-generational illiteracy, the strong correlation between disadvantage, poverty and illiteracy; and the disengagement that can lead to young people departing early from the education system.
We know, from the progress that has been made in recent years, that we are on a positive path. As we begin the process of commemorations around the centenary of 1916 is there any better way to honour the values of our republic, as articulated in the Proclamation, than by seeking a version of the State that meets our demands as a Republic and a deepening of democracy.
Let us strive to eradicate illiteracy from our society, realising our shared obligation to ensure that no one is denied the important tool of citizenship that is literacy; and let us never forget that citizenship is more than about rights, it is about belonging; of being ‘at home’ in one’s world without fear or shame. It is only through the envisioning of such a citizenship that we can craft together a future built on inclusion, a creative society, and a real Republic.
I thank all of you here today for the work you have done and continue to do to create such a citizenship. I am confident that this awareness week will be yet another positive stepping stone on our journey towards realising that vision, and I wish you a successful week and a very fruitful discussion here today.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.