Are one in five British adults illiterate?

29 March 2012

"Britain has up to eight million adults who are functionally illiterate, a report out today revealed. The World Literacy Foundation said one in five of the UK population are so poor at reading and writing they struggle to read a medicine label or use a chequebook".

"Figures show it costs the UK economy £81bn a year".

The Daily Mail, 29 March 2012

"ONE in five UK adults is "functionally illiterate" a report reveals today."

The Sun, 29 March 2012

Australian charity the World Literacy Foundation caused a splash on this side of the globe today, prompting headlines in two of our national newspapers claiming that one in five Brits are 'functionally illiterate'.

According to the reports, poor reading and writing skills cost the UK economy £81 billion. Can this be true?

AnalysisOne in five?

A look at the World Literacy Foundation report quickly reveals the origin of the papers' claim. It notes:

"The Leitch report indicated that if the UK is to compete effectively in the global economy, it would need to invest heavily to improve its basic skills base. This includes a direct challenge to address the fact that 20% of the UK adult population is functionally illiterate. The number of UK adults who are functionally illiterate is estimated at 6 to 8 million."

However this is only half accurate. The Leitch Review of Skills, a 2006 Treasury report, did indeed recommend that the UK should dramatically "raise its game" when it came to literacy.

Estimating the scale of the problem however, the Leitch report gave a different figure, saying "one seventh (5 million) are not functionally literate".

So where does the World Literacy Foundation's extra 3 million come from?

The source provided by the Foundation is somewhat less authoritative, as it points to an article written by a Becky Woosey as part of a 2005 writing competition for BBC Northampton called 'Write '05'.

While a contribution to a local writing project may well be interesting in its own right, it's not normally a source that we place alongside a Government commissioned review authored by a peer of the realm.

As it happens we were able to trace the source of Becky's claim back to an OECD report called Literacy in the Information Age, which does include the one in five stat.

However there are a number of problems with the figure used in the context that it was this morning.

Firstly, it wasn't one that was revealed 'today'. Far from it, this research actually dates from 1996.

Secondly, the definition of literacy used in this OECD report is different from the one used in other parts of the World Literacy Foundation's report.

The 'one in five' figure refers to those only meeting Level 1 of their five level reading criteria. Level 1 is defined as:

This doesn't seem to quite match up with the picture painted in the Daily Mail, of people "so poor at reading and writing they struggle to read a medicine label or use a chequebook". Rather, to reach Level 1 the respondents had to show at least some degree of comprehension.

Further, Level 1 is not defined as functionally illiterate here — they are meeting the lowest level of literacy in this particular test. 

Analysis: Cost of Illiteracy

The papers also reported that illiteracy costs the UK economy £81bn a year.

This news also comes from the World Literacy Foundation in January, when their summit Committee Chairman Dr Anthony Cree said: "The UK is missing out on an injection of funds into its economy worth billions of dollars". Mr Cree's use of the 'dollars' currency in this sentence got us interested.

(Table cropped - figures in billions)

In the impending WLF report, above, the 81 figure appears again, but this time with a dollar sign preceding it , but in the interim UK report the figure is put in pounds. This may be a typo in the more recent study, but it does raise questions about its comparability to other countries in the list.

Searching for the genesis of the figure, we found that the figures are based on a UNESCO mathematical formula. This appeared in a research paper that looked specifically at South American countries, and while it may be the case that the principles outlined can also be applied to developed nations, there was some anomalies in the way it was used by the World Economic Foundation.

Primarily, it is important to note that the definition of functional illiteracy used by UNESCO relies on years of schooling as a proxy. 

This is different to the definition used to calculate the 20 per cent figure, so combining the two to estimate the 'cost' of illiteracy is likely to raise problems.

The UNESCO report produced cost estimates by comparing earnings and productivity differences between those with the most and fewest years of schooling. Given the differences in the school attendance rate in the UK and South America, it isn't clear that these findings can be applied wholesale to Britain.


Initial problems with the World Literacy Foundation's findings, such as referencing a non-academic source and using different currencies, were superficial and could be remedied easily. But the research overall is based on some conflicting and dated data, and studies whose relevance to the UK is questionable.

Given the Leitch report provides more conservative estimates based upon more up-to-date and UK-centric research, we would urge caution before plumping for these more headline-friendly findings.

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