From education to employment

Using drama to lift the lid on literacy

In October last year we called for the media to step up to the plate and use its influence to encourage those with poor literacy and numeracy to address their skills needs.  At the time we paid tribute to the campaigns run by The Sun and The Evening Standard. Since then Daybreak (ITV’s breakfast show) has delivered an excellent ‘Get Britain Reading’ Campaign which told realistic stories, reached out to communities, and brought in high profile support – bringing even more attention to the issue.

On top of these factual approaches, this week the BBC is broadcasting five daytime dramas, Secrets and Words, which will weave literacy issues into the lives of ordinary people, and highlight, with clarity, the complexities of the issue and the impact it can have on so many parts of everyday life.

We hope the programmes, which will be supported by a telephone helpline and the BBC Skillswise website, will result in significant numbers of adults not only joining traditional classes, but also seeking support from their union or HR department at work, taking up family literacy courses in schools and using online facilities helping them to learn at their own pace in their own homes. We hope learning providers are ready for all the interest!

And there is undoubtedly more to come with another television programme featuring literacy in a carefully crafted storyline over the next few weeks – I’d tell you more but we promised the producers we wouldn’t spoil the impact!

As much as we welcome the focus on literacy, we must make sure that we get this issue right, to make it realistic and not shocking. Unfortunately we still see the occasional headlines about the huge number of people who are ‘illiterate’ and people who ‘can’t read’. Over the past few months NIACE has been advising the BBC on the scripts for Secrets and Words. We have arranged visits to reading groups for some of the writers and actors and the programme makers to listen to the experiences of people who have ‘returned to learn’ as adults and dramatically improved their literacy skills.

While the aim of any drama is to entertain, the real skill of the productions will be in how far they reach those people who haven’t responded to other literacy initiatives.  Many people don’t recognise that they have a problem; perhaps they are leading ‘okay’ lives – with a job, children and friends. Others are often all too aware of their lack of skills, but their confidence is so low they think they can’t learn anything. They certainly don’t want to approach a building that reminds them of failure; some feel they will be humiliated, others have been bullied.  They can feel trapped and have spent their lives developing coping strategies, forever anxious that they’re about to be ‘found out’.

Some know their skills could be better but are too busy. It really helps if provision is available locally. Transport, access and childcare are major barriers to learning, particularly in rural areas. And timings often don’t work for those in jobs or with childcare or caring responsibilities.

A concerted and collaborative campaign in the UK, which highlights the impact of poor literacy and even numeracy but avoids headlines that don’t tell the whole story could be breathtaking in its scale and would help this country address another scandal. Because it is a scandal that one in five adults have very poor literacy levels and that some young children start school never having seen a book, or don’t know how to write their own name.  Above all this campaign needs to diminish the stigma through understanding the complexities of how poor literacy affects lives, while encouraging enrolment and unleashing the power of people within communities to help them communicate with each other.

The media’s role in this is invaluable because of its extraordinary reach and its ability to convey powerful messages that captivate loyal audiences. The BBC has come forward with Secrets and Words a series we hope will be as ground-breaking for adult literacy as On The Move was in the 1970s.

The people who will be reached by this week’s dramas will relate to one of the cast, who has the similar frustrations and anxieties that the world of words contains for them. Let’s hope they find the strength and courage to pick up the phone and start the exhilarating journey from secrets to a world of words.

Secrets and Words is broadcast each weekday this week, starting Monday 26th March at 2.15pm on BBC One.

Carol Taylor is director of development and research at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

Read other FE News article by Carol Taylor:

International Women’s Day 2012

Apprenticeships can change lives – so let’s not lose sight of those who need fresh starts and second chances

Adult literacy and the role the media can play

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