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European Commission


Member of the European Commission for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Overcoming the literacy taboo

Debate on the EU High Level Group Report on Literacy

/European Parliament, Brussels

22 January 2013

Your Royal Highness,

Dear Ms Schaake,

Dear Dr. Marope,

Distinguished guests,

It is a real pleasure to be here with all of you today for this discussion on literacy in light of the final report by the EU High Level Group on Literacy.

I would like to thank the UNESCO Brussels Liasion office and Ms Schaake for making this possible.

I'm also delighted that we will be hearing from Princess Laurentien and Dr Marope on the subject. I am very grateful for their participation and I look forward to their presentations.

This afternoon, I would like to recall briefly the situation of literacy in Europe and look at what we are doing to address the challenges in this field.

Still too often, we assume that poor literacy is a thing of the past, when sadly, that is not so. Today, in the 21st century, we see in Europe millions of young people and adults who are struggling with reading and writing. And we see little improvement in their plight. Considering that more textual types have developed over the decades, it becomes eminent to develop further our literacy skills to accommodate this evolution.

Without these skills, it is impossible to participate fully in the community. Good literacy skills are the foundation of all learning – as the High Level Group points out and they are the prerequisite for any democratic society.

Technological progress and the need to use advanced literacy skills in the labour market, compound the problem and make it even more difficult for those with poor literacy to cope with change. We see this in the workplace, which increasingly rewards the ability to acquire new skills throughout one's working life; we see this in our societies where technological advances open up new forms of social, cultural and democratic participation.

And yet, despite the actions already taken in the Member States to improve literacy levels, still more than one in five Europeans is likely to have a poor level of functional literacy.

I believe that reaching a high level of literacy across the EU is a matter of equity and social justice.

That is why literacy is a crucial element of Europe's growth strategy too, where education and training play a key role. That is why the EU has set a benchmark to reduce the share of low achievers in literacy to less than 15% by 2020 - a target that only three Member States have reached so far.

It is against this backdrop that I set up the High Level Group of Experts on Literacy as part of my Literacy Campaign to find ways to improve literacy for all age groups in Europe. And I am very happy to say that the Group has done an extraordinary job - Princess Laurentien will tell us more about that in a moment when she presents the key findings of the Group's report.

Princess Laurentien joined me in presenting the final report for the first time in September last year at the Cyprus Presidency conference on 'Literacy for All' where we discussed it with over 100 experts.

During the informal Education Council last October I presented the political outcomes of this work which led in November to the adoption of Conclusions on Literacy by EU Education Ministers and set the direction for further action.

In the Conclusions they adopted, Ministers fully endorsed the recommendations of the High Level Group on actions to be taken at Member State and EU level.

These recommendations include:

  • providing advice to parents on how to create a culture of reading for pleasure with their children;

  • developing clear guidelines on what competences teachers should have for teaching reading;

  • ensuring free, high-quality early childhood education and care for all;

  • providing more expert advice and support for teachers to address individual needs;

  • reviewing teaching materials to adapt reading competences to the digital age;

  • raising more awareness and providing more learning opportunities for adults, especially in the workplace.

I am convinced that, this Campaign has to be seen as a wake-up call. The Education Ministers' Conclusions on Literacy are a first answer – a good answer in my view - and mark the beginning of a new phase of concrete work in the European Union.

The political will is there: but from now on making concrete progress will require real and sustainable commitment from all relevant players, it will require developing wider awareness of the challenge posed by literacy, and it will require more cooperation across borders.

The European Commission is taking the lead in providing support to the Member States. It will fund a European network of literacy organisations to facilitate the sharing of good practices and policy initiatives aimed at improving literacy performance across the European Union.

This network is important as a coordination point, a clearing house for identifying and promoting what has been shown to work in practice, so that we avoid re-inventing the wheel in the different European countries.

We see big differences in literacy levels among countries. This is a challenge for Europe, but also a sign that there is a lot to learn from successful practice.

I am deeply committed to the idea that each and every one can do more to support reading literacy. I have made a point of taking part in reading events in schools across Europe. It is a real joy to see young children and teachers engage together in reading, sharing ideas and sparking their imagination.

One of the aims of the network is to organise a yearly 'Europe Loves Reading' week, to raise awareness of the importance of reading.

I know UNESCO is already doing a lot across the world to promote International Literacy Day. I believe that we can support more awareness-raising in the European Union as well, and I look forward to the network's launch.

To support our policy work on education in the EU, I have proposed the new Erasmus for All programme for the next funding period 2014-2020. This integrated programme for education, training, youth and sport is also the ideal vehicle to support the cross-cutting and imaginative approaches to better literacy presented in the High Level Group Report.

The Commission has proposed a significant increase in the budget of the future programme, and I'm pleased that the European Parliament strongly supports this vision.

Therefore, with the necessary ambition, I'm convinced that the future programme has the potential to break the cycle of literacy deficits in the EU.

Ladies and gentlemen,

All too often, underachievement in literacy is strongly related to underachievement in mathematics and science. It is one aspect of the bigger challenge we are facing in education of ensuring an appropriate level of basic skills for all.

A lot of work is already on-going in Member States and at European level to improve performance in basic skills. And in an effort to deepen cooperation on basic skills in the future, the European Commission will report on the most effective policies to tackle low achievement in basic skills. I look forward to working together with you to take forward this work.

But before I conclude, I would like to mention a dimension that we sometimes overlook, when we really shouldn't. It is the extent to which adults too suffer from literacy problems. And it is the social taboo that is linked to this.

This taboo means that people are too ashamed to admit that they have a problem; they develop strategies for concealing it, and may never have the confidence to seek help.

So we should never forget that what we are doing is vital not just for our future generations but also for our fellow adults. With our work on literacy and basic skills, we need to overcome the feeling of hopelessness linked to adult illiteracy.

We are really trying hard to make progress in this area too. In October this year, the OECD will be publishing the results of its survey of adult skills, carried out through PIAAC – the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, a project which the EU actively supports and is helping develop.

It will be the first time in decades that we'll have a clear comparative picture of adult skill levels across Europe, and it should help stimulate further political interest in literacy in the future.

Dear all,

With the report of the High Level Group on Literacy and the related work that will follow, we are sending a strong signal that adult literacy can be improved.

However, we need to move forward with the understanding that it is only by combining all our efforts that we can make the vision of 'literacy for all' a reality in Europe. I am confident that together we can do this.

I feel privileged to be in partnership with all of you in this endeavour and look forward to our continued collaboration.

Thank you.

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