Illiteracy, affecting 7% of the French population, not only has an impact on health, employment and civic engagement by individuals, but also on the country’s economy. France Stratégie, an institution linked to the Prime Minister, delivers its recommendations to cut this rate in half within ten years.
What are the profile of people who are illiterate ?
Quentin Delpech, of France Stratégie : Our figures are based on an INSEE survey conducted in 2011 with ANLCU (The National Agency in the fight against illiteracy) among 18-65 year-olds : 7% of people have literacy problems in metropolitan France (excluding overseas territories) that is, 2.5 million people in 2011. With more men than women. More than a half is over the age of 45. Another affected population is the young. During the Defence and Citizenship Days census (JDC) in 2014, 31,000 were counted. Other surveys show that in France, more than in other countries, a large proportion of adults has poor basic skills. One survey conducted in OECD countries estimated that in France 22% of people had poor writing skills and 28% had poor numeracy skills. These people tend to live in more sparsely populated areas, or in sensitive urban zones (ZUS). However, contrary to popular belief, they are not cut off from society. These people found avoidance strategies to cope with their situation. Over 50% are employed.
What impact does this have on their lives ?
Illiteracy has an impact on people’s independence, on their social empowerment. There are higher risks of social and professional exclusion. The OECD survey highlights this fact; these impacts also affect the areas of health, civic engagement and participation in the labour market and community activities. Mastering basic skills is a prerequisite for accessing other types of qualification.
What are your recommendations ?
Our analysis recommends targeting both populations : the old and the young. Poor basic skills put people with literacy problems at increased risk of job insecurity.
What are the challenges for France ?
The fight against illiteracy is a social cohesion issue. The OECD surveys show that illiteracy affects participation in the labour market and the productivity of individuals, even more so in the context of increased professional mobility, new work methods and the introduction of new technologies. In the future, it will be a crucial issue for human capital in our society and for long-term growth.
You also talk of a challenge concerning the digital revolution. What do you mean by that ?
We have no data for France on this topic. But other countries are experiencing the same situation : low levels of e-skills for older generations. In parallel, other surveys show that young people have good digital and social network skills, though this does not necessarily make people able to effectively search for work or data on the Internet.
The report recommends setting up a proactive policy to cut this rate in half. How would you achieve this ?
Illiteracy rates will automatically drop in France in the next few years because of generational renewal, a higher rate of schooling in the population and better-targeted training. It has already systematically dropped from 2004 to 2011, from 9% to 7%. This drop is not solely due to generational renewal, but also to public policies and general awareness. We must go even further. This fight requires extra funding (50 million euro more per year) compared to funds already allocated. In fact, we must train 74,000 adults and 31,000 young people every year for ten years. We should already be targeting young people with literacy problems identified in the JDC census, and provide them with training and guidance. For young people still in school, we should give them access to training more in line with their problems, particularly through second chance schools. In schools, we must build on what exists, rather than creating systems from scratch.
How can we impact adults, families, and young people in advance ?
The tenet of early detection is part of our National Education programme. The effort now being made by reorganising schooling around the common core of knowledge and skills is a step in the right direction. It should be also noted that the 31,000 young people detected during the JDC census are among the 72,000 vulnerable young people with poor basic skills. The education policy aims to help these 72,000 youngsters, most of whom are still in school. However, financing is one thing, public policy measures are another, and this will only work if all actors are mobilised. In the academic sphere, we can also mention educational family activities, which can detect illiteracy among parents. In the sphere of the workplace, we can work on this in the context of professional fields, via local managers and social partners. The problem with vocational training, which would be a good tool in the fight against illiteracy, is that in France it mainly benefits thosewho already have qualifications. The people who have most need of it have least access to it, as there are problems with distributing information and acceptability. The third sphere concerns the voluntary space. Many organisations conduct awareness-raising activities, training and encourage the love of reading in young people.
There has been significant mobilisation around this phenomenon in the world of work and school, but it nevertheless remains a taboo subject. But there are still many actions we can take to increase wider public awareness.