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Feature – Tackling youth illiteracy: a European challenge
23.08.2012, 09:15 (CET)
As millions of school students across Europe prepare to embark upon a new academic year, the statistic that one in five 15-year-olds in the European Union lack basic reading and writing skills is hard to fathom. This comes with a serious social dimension, as it could constitute an obstacle for their future employment and may result in social exclusion. The European Commission has identified the need to take action and on September 5 and 6 in Cyprus, the EU-appointed High Level Group of experts in the field of literacy will present its policy proposals to the Presidency Conference on Literacy.

Twenty per cent of fifteen-year-olds in the European Union were in 2009 evaluated as being low achievers in reading literacy.  Conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a project of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the worldwide study examines the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science.

The study, compiled every three years, shows that the EU scores worse in this field than in comparable countries in other parts of the world – for example the equivalent figure is 18 per cent in the United States of America, 14 in Japan and 10 per cent in Canada.

Defined as those pupils who are able to complete only the most basic reading tasks – for example locating rudimentary information and identifying the main theme of a text – low achievers in reading literacy are expected to face problems beyond school.

Excluded from the labour market and society

“Too many Europeans find themselves locked out of the job market and find it hard to contribute fully to society because they lack basic reading and writing skills,” says European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Mrs. Androulla Vassiliou.

Estimates show that the share of jobs requiring high qualifications will increase to 35% by the end of the decade, compared to the existing 29%. This would make it harder for those who lack adequate reading skills to find employment and there is a real risk that this could lead to their social exclusion.

It is not only school children for whom there is a need for action, but for adults as well.  Some 80 million European adults, an estimated one third of the Union’s workforce, have only low or basic skills.

 In a rapidly changing world, where lifelong learning is considered the key to employment, economic success and allowing people complete participation in society, the absence of reading and writing abilities is highly problematic. By tackling illiteracy, the positive effects are likely to be felt in a range of other areas, such as poverty, employability and health.

Targeting a five per cent reduction

The EU has targeted reducing the share of 15-year-olds with poor reading skills to 15 per cent in the next eight years, making it one of its five joint European Union targets (benchmarks) in the field of education. 

“If we want to achieve our Europe 2020 goals for smart and inclusive growth, we must act now to tackle this problem," Mrs. Vassiliou added.

With each Member State in charge of its own education systems, policies made at the EU-level are intended to support national action. To help improve literacy in the Union, the Commission has launched a number of targeted projects and studies.

Commissioner Vassiliou initiated 'Europe loves reading', an awareness raising campaign to motivate children, teenagers and adults to read. The Commission has also launched two studies aimed at collecting further information on reading, the involvement of parents in the acquisition of literacy and teaching reading.  These studies aim to identify some of the crucial aspects that influence the acquisition of reading skills, highlighting successful practices and actions taken at national level in place to improve reading achievement.

Presenting proposals on literacy

Furthermore, in February last year, the Commission launched a High Level Group on Literacy, tasked with giving visibility and political impetus to the issue of raising literacy levels in Europe through analysing scientific evidence and evaluating which policies work best and how.

The group is chaired by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, a Special Envoy on Literacy for Development for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and includes experts on literacy from academia, politics and business.

Their findings will be presented and discussed among academics, policy makers and other stakeholders in education in the Cyprus Presidency Conference on Literacy on September 5 and 6, taking place at the ‘Filoxenia’ Conference Centre in Lefkosia (Nicosia).

Useful input to policy makers across Europe

“The emphasis on Literacy, as well as the policy recommendations suggested by the High Level Group on Literacy will provide useful input to policy makers across Europe, in order to promote literacy and facilitate specific prevention and early identification programmes in the educational systems,” said Dr Athena Michaelidou, Director of the Pedagogical Institute of Cyprus, on behalf of the organisers of the Conference.

Based on the group's proposals, the Cyprus Presidency will organise a discussion during the Informal Meeting of Education Ministers in October 2012 and subsequently present Council Conclusions for adoption by Education Ministers in November 2012. On this ground, Member States and the Commission will work together in order to improve literacy levels across Europe within the context of their strategic co-operation framework on education and training.

“The discussion and recommendations which will emerge from the conference will highlight the need for systematic efforts from all the interested parts towards reducing illiteracy and will provide practical suggestions for action, added Dr. Athena Michaelidou.

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