The facts are shocking whichever way you look at them. According to a recent National Audit Office report, 26 million men and women of working age have levels of literacy and numeracy below those expected of school leavers. More than five million have standards of English below GCSE pass level and nearly seven million have numeracy skills below those of the average 11-year-old. It is estimated that poor standards of literacy and numeracy cost the UK economy £10bn a year. Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing, says these industries are far too short of people with higher levels of ability to be able to compete in an increasingly cut-throat global economy.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lack of basic skills takes an even heavier toll on the lives of individuals. Research shows that people with poor literacy, language and numeracy levels are far more likely to suffer unemployment, low pay and poor physical and mental health. Those with the lowest level of skills often find simply going about their everyday lives difficult. Tasks such as reading and understanding labels and signs, or checking that you've received the right change at the supermarket, can seem insurmountable hurdles when you have the reading and numeracy levels of a nine-year-old or younger. In the past few weeks, the issue has been highlighted on EastEnders - where the character Keith Miller, who is unable to read or write, is mortified by his inability to fill in a simple form at the jobcentre.
There's no doubt that extending the skills and knowledge of the workforce is crucial to economic success and social progress. In March 2001, the Department for Education and Skills launched its Skills for Life programme in an attempt to break the cycle of low educational achievement in England. Evidence shows the strategy is starting to take effect - the government met its 2004 target of getting 750,000 adults to improve their skills - but how do we make it happen faster and more effectively?
It is to address this dilemma that the New Statesman and Fellows' Associates have organised a series of regional round tables, the first of which was held in Birmingham this month. The wide-ranging debate began by looking at what the government, trade unions, employers and the voluntary sector are doing to tackle the "skills scandal".
Tony Howell of Birmingham City Council kicked off the discussion by pointing out that Birmingham is "very focused on the adult basic skills agenda and its link to the demography of the city". But with the publication of the white paper on education for 14- to 19-year-olds fresh in people's minds, he expressed concern that academic qualifications continued to carry disproportionate weight with employers. "I still perceive an inequality in perception between academic attainment and vocational qualifications, which could provide a much better route into the world of work," he said.
Mark Lavender of Dudley Metropolitan Council was keen to challenge the negative view that academic study led to jobs in medicine or law, and vocational courses to low-paid jobs on building sites and in factories. "For the construction industry, well-qualified, skilled people are vital," he said. "We have got to tackle the image that is associated with being in construction or engineering. One thing that did a lot for us recently was when plumbing suddenly appeared on the front page of every national newspaper, with the headline 'Be a plumber and you can earn as much as a doctor or solicitor'. That did more than any education campaign."
Ivan Lewis, the minister for skills, was adamant that when it comes to education, motivation is the key. "If we are going to achieve our aspirations in terms of education, then we have got to be unapologetic about the focus on high standards and high expectations," he said. "Once kids get to 14 they have their own views. They are incredibly strong-minded. Unless we are able in the context of the Pop Idol and Beckham generation to say that education - not chance, not luck, not celebrity - is the route to a better standard of living and quality of life, then we are always going to have problems."
Pat Jackson of Advantage West Midlands agreed that it was vital to send a far stronger message to young people about the importance of learning. "They are getting very confusing signals," she said. "Is it fun to learn? Or is it something they do because they have to?" Bill Nicholls of the Engineering Employers' Federation took a similar view. "We have only got 40 to 45 per cent of young people coming through school with the benchmark of five GCSEs, and that is hopeless," he said. "The real issue is that there are so many young people and their parents out there who aren't valuing learning. You find people in Asia and Africa who are poverty-stricken but will go to the end of the world to give their child a good education. You don't find that in the UK."
Maureen Hooper of the Midlands Communication Workers Union and Ed Leach of Usdaw's Midlands branch described the efforts both unions were making to help members improve their skills levels. Hooper had come across postmen who couldn't read and write to a satisfactory standard but who said they were reluctant to return to learning, often because of bad experiences at school. Leach spoke of Usdaw's success with its union learning representatives scheme. Research published by the TUC last year found that reps up and down the country were managing to persuade workers to attend courses aimed at enhancing their skills and effectiveness in the workplace.
Fatin Wana has spent nearly 30 years teaching English as a second language. She spoke of the importance of families learning together and the efficacy of "embedding" literacy and language with vocational skills. "If you don't know the language, you can't work with the language," she said.
The participants were unanimous in praising the scores of initiatives across the West Midlands to get people back into education - whether to improve basic skills, "up-skill" or retrain. Everyone agreed that schemes in the workplace, schools, further education colleges and community centres, and on distance learning programmes and even "learning buses", had been beneficial both to individuals and to society as a whole.
"The vast majority of adult learners are either parents or grandparents," said Lewis. "Many of the speakers here are involved with turning people back on to learning in their thirties, forties and fifties. Learners talk about the dignity they feel, the self-esteem and the confidence they've gained - but they also say: 'And now I can help my child or grandchild'. This concept of intergenerational advance replacing intergenerational deprivation is something I feel very passionately about."
Rounding off the debate, Lewis stressed that as well as wanting all young people to remain in some form of education or training up to the age of 18 or 19, the government was determined to encourage lifelong learning. "In the past, when we've spoken about education, we've tended to speak about schools and universities and missed out vocational qualifications, the early years, employer-based training and the trade unions," he said. "In the modern world, we have got to give equal status and priority to skills, vocational education and lifelong learning." He reckoned that with the publication of the 14-19 white paper and the forthcoming adult skills white paper, the government had come up with a vision for 14-90. "But before people start to panic," he added, "there is no intention that people should work beyond 60 or 65."
Nick Owen (Chair) - Broadcaster
Mary Alys - Learning services co-ordinator, TUC Midlands region
Geoff Bateson - Partnership manager, Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership
Phil Derges - Director of resource centres, Rolls-Royce
Maureen Hooper - Regional secretary, Midlands Communication Workers Union
Jayne Howle - Training and development manager, Birmingham International Airport
Tony Howell - Strategic director of learning and culture, Birmingham City Council
Derek Inman - Deputy chairman, Birmingham Forward
Pat Jackson - Director of regional skills, Advantage West Midlands
Mark Lavender - Principal regeneration manager, Dudley Metropolitan Council
Ed Leach - Union learning representative, Usdaw Midlands branch
Ivan Lewis - Minister for skills and vocational education, Department for Education and Skills
Neville Lilly - Managing director, New Environmental Ventures
Bill Nicholls - Director, education and training devt, Engineering Employers' Federation
Christine Vincent - Director of teaching and learning, British Educational Communications and Technology Agency
Fatin Wana - National Assoc for Teaching English & Other Community Languages to Adults