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About A Week: If Only They Could Read

Peter Hinchliffe brings some depressing statistics for those who seek to entertain and inform by means of the written word.

Here’s a depressing bit of information for all who contribute to Open Writing. Twenty-two per cent of British adults are unable to read your words.

Sir Digby Jones, the UK’s Government’s skills campaigner, is alarmed that millions of adults cannot read or write. He calls the situation a “national disgrace’’.

Sir Digby, formerly director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has launched a two-year campaign to persuade businesses to give employees time off to work on their numeracy and literacy skills.

He predicts increased crime levels and social problems if skills deficiencies are not tackled. The main drive of his campaign is to encourage small businesses to take advantage of the Government-backed Train to Gain scheme.

Sir Digby will be appealing to employers’ native greed, warning, "Your business is not going to succeed if you can't get skilled people," he said.

The National Literacy Trust reports that the British lag behind the world in reading but lead at watching TV.

The Trust, founded in 1993, is an independent charity dedicated to building a literate nation. “Our vision is of a society where literacy is a valued part of everybody's life and all have the reading, writing and communication skills required to support their goals.’’

To emphasise the size of the problem the Trust publicise the results of an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development investigation in 22 countries into the ability to cope with written material.

Britain is in the bottom half in the three most crucial yardsticks of literacy, lagging behind economic competitors such as Germany, the US, Australia, Canada, the main Nordic countries and much of the rest of Europe.

Britain has the fourth highest level of unemployment among people with the poorest modern literacy skills - those unable to understand dosage instructions on a packet of medicine.

Britain's worst showing was in quantitative literacy, coming 16th out of 22. The countries which did worse were Hungary, Ireland, Slovenia, Poland, Portugal and Chile. Britain's second worst performance was 15th out of 22 at document literacy. It came 13th in prose literacy.

Overall, Britain's performance put it among 14 countries where "at least 15% of adults have literacy skills at only the most rudimentary level - making it difficult for them to cope with the rising skill demands of the information age."

Illiteracy is often, if not always, accompanied by shoddy speech. Inadequate British verbal skills are currently been displayed to the world on Channel 4 TV’s Celebrity Big Brother programme.

An international row resulted from abuse by British housemates Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O'Meara directed at Bollywood actress and fellow contestant Shilpa Shetty, whose accent and behaviour were ridiculed.

A record 30,000 viewers officially complained, alleging racism There were street protests in India and the objectionable nature of the abuse was raised in both the British and Indian parliaments.

Carphone Warehouse has suspended its advertising support for the programme and Hertfordshire police have launched an investigation into allegations of racism.

A British National newspaper ran contrasting portraits of Jane Goody, a previous Big Brother contestant and actress Shilpa Shetty.

· In a Big Brother show five years ago Jane Goody revealed a laughably inadequate stock of general knowledge. She thought Rio de Janeiro was a footballer, that Sherlock Holmes invented the toilet and that Pistachio was the genius behind the Mona Lisa.

She asked housemates: "Where's East Angular [sic] though?
I thought that was abroad."

On travel: "Do they speak Portuganese in Portugal?"

On sport: "Do you play croquet on a horse?"

· Shilpa Shetty, now 31, made her big screen debut in 1993 at
the age of 18 in Baazigar, alongside Shahrukh Khan, a true Bollywood megastar. She was nominated as Best Newcomer in that year's Filmfare Asian film awards.

She speaks four Indian languages, English and basic
French, was destined for iconic stardom, and campaigns for
AIDS victims, a politically controversial subject in India, and
also lends her support to Peta, an animal rights group.


Teaching in British primary schools is of a high standard. However in most homes both husband and wife go out to work. After work, cooking, washing, house cleaning and other household chores have to be done.

There’s less time than in bygone days to spend time with children: playing games with them, reading and talking to them. The easy option is to dump children in front of TV while necessary work is being done.

Many primary schools run a Reading Friends programme. Those with time to spare during the day – particularly retired people – go into the neighbourhood school for an hour to read with children on a one-to-one basis, encouraging them to develop their own reading skills.

Adults find the work demanding and enjoyable. I know this is so. I’m a reading friend.

Perhaps there should be a national campaign in Britain which encourages adults to go back to school as helpers. Teachers are doing a good job in primary schools. But with classes of 25 or 30 pupils they cannot afford to devote 20 minutes to one child. A Reading Friend can do this.

What to call the campaign?



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