Basic literacy and life-skills are general practical skills which are essential for our participation in the local community, for our integration into social life, for our employment, and basic skills also open the doors for us to acquire new specific skills and professional competences. Of course, we can find different definitions in different approaches, but their common feature is that basic skills include reading comprehension, literacy and numeracy skills, oral communication and digital skills, but also social skills which are increasingly emphasised among workplace expectations.
So, basic skills are essential skills in modern societies, and which are needed by every citizen. However, according to the OECD’s international survey, the PIAAC research on the basic skills of adults, approximately seventy million European citizens’ basic skills level is unsatisfactory within the age group of 15–64 years old. Every fifth European citizen’s reading or writing skills level and every fourth citizen’s numeracy skills level is at 1 or lower on the five grade scale used in the survey. (Hungary did not participate in the first round of the PIAAC survey in 2010–12 nor in the second round held in 2013–15, so its first survey will take place in 2018).
International research results justify the idea that those who have low-level basic skills, are more likely to lose their jobs and to become long-term unemployed, therefore they risk poverty or exclusion from society, of illness and early death is more common among them.
An international survey covering several countries showed that 65–85% of juvenile detainees in juvenile detention centres had problems with reading and writing. The low level of basic skills is a basic obstacle to participating in lifelong learning, therefore those adults have little chance and opportunity to keep up with the changes of the world, the expectations coming from society and the labour market, to acquire new competences or qualifications which could improve their chances on the labour market and hence their employability.
The lack of basic skills involves significant extra costs for society, since unemployment and bad health conditions are accompanied by increased social, national labour market and health expenses, as well as costs spent on law enforcement. The lack of workers’ basic skills may cause significant extra costs to businesses employing them, because their productivity may become lower than that of the competitors, and quality problems may arise and the rejection rate may also be higher, which decreases their overall competivity. People whose reading and writing skills are low, spend in general little time with their children reading or learning, and it is highly probable that the new generations will inherit and carry over the disadvantages.
According to international experience, investments made in basic skills development may have numerous positive impacts: people whose basic skills improve get along better in their social environment, they may follow and interpret any experienced events in a better way, thereby their independence, self-confidence and ability for self-sufficiency get stronger, and their physical and mental condition may improve; also the parental roles within the family become more focused on and stronger within the family. With the development of basic skills, the employee’s adaptability and workplace productivity increases, they have more chance to maintain their jobs and to increase their wage level.
Indeed, if there is such a direct relationship between the acquisition of basic skills and the improvement of one’s quality of life and employability, then what is stopping us significantly increasing the number of participants in basic skills development programmes?
This issue has a number of specificities, each of which constitutes a significant challenge for national policies and training institutions.
First of all, the problem remains concealed; neither the individuals, nor their environment are well aware of it. Most people think that their reading, writing or numeracy skills are satisfactory for their job and for maintaining their everyday life. Research has backed up the thinking that people whose reading skills are low, usually assess their skills significantly higher than in reality. In the workplace, the lack of skills is not manifested directly, for instance, it is reflected in the form of conflicts, late performance, increased rejection rate of tasks done or quality problems, and all of this may be due to the inaccurate interpretation of workplace instructions, to the lack of carrying out or checking the appropriate calculations or to incorrect time management. In most cases, workplace superiors also think that the source of the problems is a personal attitude and not the skills gaps behind it. The real reason for the problems remains unidentified until a significant change occurs in the individual’s life: a move to another job within the workplace, a forced change of workplace, the loss of a close family member, birth of a child, etc., which brings new real-life situations and challenges into the individual’s life and for which it would be essential to use certain basic skills or to acquire those skills by adapting to the new situation.
Those who recognise deficiencies in themselves, are reluctant to reveal those deficiencies to strangers, and do not assume the learning-related risks either. They think that they are too old to learn, to change their situation. Many people with low reading and writing skills develop their own survival strategy, and it is with the help of their partners/spouses or even with the help of work-mates that they avoid real-life situations in which their deficiencies would be revealed. However, with digital technologies embedded in workplace situations more now, there are fewer and fewer workplaces where individuals can avoid getting along without developing their digital skills and bringing their relevant reading, writing and communication skills to the appropriate level.
As regards the policy-makers and the employers, the interpretation of basic skills constitutes a further problem source. Many people still think that today everybody learns to write and to read and “becomes literate” at school, therefore illiteracy concerns ‘do not exist’ today. In fact, almost everybody learns to write and to read formally in reality, but not at the level that is required from them on behalf of society or the workplace environment, therefore they remain functionally illiterate. Basic skills may be described on a wide scale, ranging from the simpler skills to more complex skills. In this respect it is decisive whether our current real-life situation and our basic skills are satisfactory or not - to be able to meet the societal or workplace expectations towards us. From this perspective, we have to take into account that the expectations of society and the economy are constantly evolving, just think about the extension of the digital skills-related expectations to all areas of life.
Another forgotten circumstance is the fact that if we do not use our skills or if we use them at a reduced level, they will progressively erode. Similarly to our progressive loss of foreign language skills if we do not use them, reading, writing or numeracy skills may also waste away significantly. Therefore, workers who spend 20 or 30 years in a job where they use their basic skills at a relatively low level and do not compensate for it in other areas of life either, will face this problem i.e. they would be forced to pursue further training and to acquire new professional competences if they wish to catch up. Even though among those who have a lower level of education, the number of people with deficient reading, writing and numeracy skills is significantly higher, this problem may also arise among people who have passed their school-leaving examination or obtained a higher education degree.
In Hungary, a lot of valuable knowledge has been accumulated at different organisations regarding basic skills development. It would be important to collect all this knowledge and to bring together the stakeholders. The publication of the results of the PIAAC survey will be an important milestone for identifying this issue in Hungary, it will provide a rich information base for the analysis of the situation and to the more in-depth understanding of the problems. It is expected that the results will help in the development of new, more focused strategies and will stimulate the widening of learning opportunities, the development of innovative approaches and methods. However, there is a need for action even before the first results become available in 2019 or 2020.
The European Basic Skills Network (EBSN) was formally established in 2011, and its primary aim is to foster the dialogue and the sharing of experience and results of responsible government bodies and institutions at national and regional level, of organisations playing a crucial role in the field, and of knowledge centres pursuing education, research and development activities. The Network intends to contribute to the visibility, the dissemination of innovations and promising practices related to the area of basic skills development, to the development of efficient European, national a local strategies. More than seventy organisations from twenty-two European and five non-European countries are represented within the Network.
The EBSN’s working groups have formulated the following recommendations for the development of national and local strategies and programmes on basic skills development:
- There is a need for awareness-raising, information campaigns and activities which help both the individuals concerned and their environment in identifying the problems and encourage to action;
- There is a need to find those strategies which allow us to reach out to those who are concerned, and to bring learning and basic skills development opportunities close to them. In reaching out to the target groups, in identifying those who need development, local cooperation and local partnerships may play a decisive role;
- Our success is not guaranteed by methods that led to failure already many years ago in schools. It is necessary to build on learning methods adapted to the different learning styles of adults, and appropriate learning environments should be created. In designing the learning programmes, the curricula and auxiliary materials, it is recommended to take into consideration that people with low-level basic skills also suffer from learning difficulties, and their learning skills are also at a low level.
- The potential of digitalisation and digital learning, the social acceptance of the need for digital competences and the motivating nature of digital technologies should be exploited;
- The acquisition of basic skills is not an end in itself; it should provide direct benefits, tangible progress for adult learners, learning should be relevant in the individual’s real-life situation.
- Close cooperation between ministries and sectors, coordination of the measures taken by the adult training sector and the social welfare sector, besides work done on a national level, and joint action by the local actors may ensure cooperative cohesion and coherence between the measures and initiatives;
- It is necessary to ensure the professional preparedness of professionals involved, regarding the specific competences to be acquired by teachers not only in the field of adult learning, but also in the field of basic skills development. The lower the level of basic skills, the less the learners will learn independently and the more mental, social and material barriers there will be to be bridged. Therefore, teachers engaging in basic skills development face more complex challenges, so their preparation and professional support are the keys to our successful development.