New report sheds light on cohort of the population that is rarely acknowledged in official statistics.

6 Nov 2011

The most significant findings show that:

  • In each year over 50% of all learners were aged between 25 and 44 years
  • In each year the majority of literacy learners were female.
  • Literacy learners were more likely to be unemployed or not in the labour market

  • Between 2008 and 2009 the number of unemployed adult literacy learners increased by 30%.

“It is a triumph against difficult circumstances to encourage so many adults back into basic education after they have had bad experiences of school. The work of the VEC Adult Literacy Organiser and their team of tutors takes place day and night throughout Ireland working to turn a negative into a positive whereby people can improve their life chances through education. Here we see those working and the unemployed, increasingly returning to education to prepare themselves for a changing Ireland,”  said Inez Bailey, Director, National Adult Literacy Agency.

“Now that we have managed to create the conditions for people to see adult learning as an essential part of their life and to overcome barriers to participate, it is imperative we retain the services which enable them to keep up in our society,” said Ms Bailey.

The significant rise of the number of adults participating in adult literacy over the time period was also accompanied by a rise in funding for the sector from a little over €11m in 2000 to €30m in 2009.[i]

The findings are important as previous research by the OECD shows that one in four adults in Ireland have literacy difficulties, these include people who left school early, those who have got out of the practice of reading and writing, and those whom the education system has failed. 

This report, which was funded by the Department of Education and Skills (DES), describes for the first time the changing profile of Irish adult literacy learners over a ten year period.  This cohort of the population is very rarely seen or acknowledged in official statistics or academic reports. 

Adult literacy services in Ireland are provided by the Vocational Education Committees in 120 locations throughout the country. The dramatic rise in the participation rate is a testament to the state provided service and the organisers, tutors and 3,500 volunteer tutors who work in the sector. The adult literacy service in conjunction with NALA has continued to work to increase the participation rate and in 2010 almost 55,000 adults were participating in adult literacy courses including family literacy, return to education, skills for work and intensive literacy programmes. The increase in participation rates came at a time when the economy was both booming and the unemployment rate was at an all time low and also includes figures since the recent crisis in 2009. 

With unemployment now standing at over 14% and the need for further education and training a political priority for Government, NALA believes that this report has the potential to inform policy and practice developments and planning in the adult literacy sector.  NALA argues that raising literacy and numeracy skills of Irish adults must be an urgent priority for our Government, economy and society.  A world-class economic and social infrastructure is beyond our reach unless there is a refreshed adult literacy and numeracy strategy that brings new thinking to old problems.[ii]

“NALA fought hard over the last decade to build up the bank of learning opportunities available to people with literacy and numeracy difficulties. The hard work by ourselves, the VEC and the DES is shown here in the report to have paid off – we need to keep that going and not allow the austerity measures to destroy all those gains. More than ever we need to support those with the least to help themselves onto a firmer base to get jobs,  progress in their careers and support their families,” said Ms Bailey.        


For more information contact:

Clare McNally, Public Relations Officer, National Adult Literacy Agency, 087 6486292

Inez Bailey, Director, National Adult Literacy Agency, 086 8393210

[i]The percentage increase in learners from 2000 to 2009 (233%) is higher than the percentage increase in budgets (173%).  This demonstrates the flexibility and commitment of VEC adult literacy services and practitioners.  It highlights that investment in adult literacy is value for money.  The return on investment is such that an increase of 1% in the budget will result in  a 1.35% in participation.


[ii]A costbenefit analysis of adult literacy carried out for NALA in 2009 shows that “expenditure on adult literacy training generates high economic returns” with the annual income gain per person per level increase on the National Framework of Qualifications being €3,810 and the gain to the Exchequer, in terms of reduced social welfare transfers and increased tax payments, being €1,531 per annum.