Now is the time to invest in adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills

Using education to boost our economy and society

Helen Ryan21/07/2020

Improving adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills can create a more equal society, stronger economy and change lives for the better. Equal societies are happier, healthier and wealthier. Adult learning and education (ALE) promotes “sustainable development, healthier societies, better jobs and more active citizenship” (UNESCO, 2016). Literacy is an essential life skill that involves listening, speaking, reading, writing, numeracy and using everyday technology to communicate, access services, and make informed choices.


Literacy is a barometer of equality. In Ireland there is a widening gap between the haves and the have nots (FEPS and TASC, 2019). It has been shown that those who need the most assistance are the least likely to be assisted. This is the Matthew effect where “without intervention, those who have acquired more education get more, and those that have not get little or nothing” (Kerckhoff, and Glennie, 1999).


The literacy challenge

Unmet literacy needs can affect people’s health and wellbeing, accessing work and lifelong learning, and being able to participate fully in family life and society.


The number of adults living without adequate basic skills is shocking. Research has shown:

  • 18% or one in six Irish adults (aged 16 to 65) struggle with reading and understanding everyday text (CSO, 2013). For example, reading a leaflet, bus timetable or medicine instructions.
  • 25% or one in four Irish adults (aged 16 to 65) has difficulties using maths in everyday life (CSO, 2013). For example, basic addition, working out a bill or calculating averages.
  • 55% of the adult population in Ireland (25 to 64) has low digital skills (Cedefop, 2020).


In 2019 65,000 adults attended attend adult literacy services in the 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) for on average 2 to 6 hours per week (Houses of Oireachtas, 2019). The Department of Education and Skills (DES) budget for adult literacy was €35 million, working out at €540 per person per year. Adult literacy has been a relatively neglected issue in comparison to investment in other areas of education. Current provision offers limited literacy tuition and supports only 12.5% of those with needs. This is inadequate to redress educational and wider inequalities and meet current government and international targets, such as Sustainable Development Goal 4, quality education.


Literacy for the future

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and its members have been campaigning on the importance of increasing investment and supporting more adults with unmet literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs. In the last two years, we met with many TDs and Senators and Government Departments and state agencies to discuss why we must prioritise those furthest behind first and the need for a new vision and approach to do this.  


Then in the new Programme for Government this year, we secured a commitment to: “Develop and implement a new 10-year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy, and digital skills within the first year of the Government.”


New vision for literacy

NALA launches three new documents this summer to help inform the development of the new 10-year Government strategy. They are:

  • Literacy Now: A report examining key policy and practices in adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills - view here
  • Literacy for Life: Whole-of-Government approach for investing in adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills – written by TASC - view here
  • Literacy Impact: Outcomes Framework for measuring the impact of improved literacy, numeracy and digital skills


The ‘Literacy for Life’ report advocates for an alternative approach which connects adult literacy with the concept of “resilience”. It suggests adopting a much broader understanding of the relationship between adult literacy and resilience through an assessment of how literacy contributes to individual agency and the capacity to respond to external events and forms of change. This thinking fits with the “capabilities approach” from international development (Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum).


The report recommends:

  • a cross-departmental and holistic approach to adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills policy;
  • a monitoring framework for adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills across policymaking bodies; and
  • new outcomes and indicators for the impact of adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills learning.


With a new Government Department being set up for Further and Higher Education and SOLAS just launching their new Further Education and Training Strategy, we have an opportunity to think differently, design creatively and respond effectively. Now is the time to invest in lifelong learning and adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills across government departments and agencies, civil society and communities. A new approach can ensure everyone has the necessary literacy, numeracy and digital skills for today and for the future.





- CSO (2013). PIAAC 2012 - Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies: Survey Results from Ireland.

- Cedefop (2020). Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways. Volume 1: adult

population with potential for upskilling and reskilling. Luxembourg: Publications of the European Union.

- Foundation for European Progressive Studies and TASC (2019). Cherishing All Equally 2019: Inequality in Europe and Ireland.

- Houses of Oireachtas, Answer to parliamentary question 112 on 27 November 2019.

- Kerckhoff, A. and Glennie, E. (1999). The Matthew Effect in American Education. Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization.

- UNESCO (2016). 3rd Global Report on Adult Learning and Education.


More information

See NALA’s website

Posted in: EconomicsInequalityPolitics

Tagged with: recovery

Helen Ryan


Helen Ryan is a Policy Officer with the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). She has more than 20 years of experience working in the non-profit and educational sectors. 



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