HR Hartley, our irascible insider on… Illiteracy

A nation drowning in a sea of illiteracy

Politicians love memorable phrases. "It’s the economy, stupid,"
quipped Bill Clinton in 1992. "Education, education, education,"
chanted Tony Blair in 1997. "Throw an egg at me and I’ll biff you,"
bellowed John Prescott in 2001.

The downside for politicians is that the public tends to remember memorable
phrases, and certainly Blair’s education repetition has burned itself into the
minds of most. It’s in mine whenever I get requests for training in English

These requests come from intelligent people within my organisation. They
often work in communication-based functions such as marketing, and for whom a
preposition is something they might make or receive at an office orgy, rather
than be a part of grammar. They are the educational successes for whom a small
amount of coaching should suffice. Of much more concern to me as a ‘people
manager’ is the pile of semi- and almost total illiterates that Blair and his
cohorts have shifted not one jot.

Not that training managers should mind too much. The failings of the
educational system provide plenty of grist to their mills and give them the
opportunity to prove just how useful they are. And a joy of the job is the
creation of courses that matter.

In education, I believe nothing matters more than the mastery of English and
Arithmetic. Which is why training managers must master them too.

For there will be much to do. The Economist warned last week that there were
11 million over-18s in the UK who lack basic literacy skills. In 2000, the UN
said at least seven million UK adults were "functionally illiterate".
As for arithmetic, Unicef reckons 40 per cent of UK school pupils aged 14 to 15
cannot do simple multiplication.

Where does all this leave us as employers?

Certainly, it all adds up to worthy work for the training manager and a more
suitable slogan for Mr Blair – "illiteracy, illiteracy, illiteracy".

Hartley, our new weekly columnist with strong opinion, is an HR director
at large

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