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29 January 2022


Tag(s): Education, Languages & Culture, Foreign Affairs
One of my favourite TV programmes at present is The Repair Shop on BBC1. My wife and I watch this every week thoroughly enjoying the extraordinary skills that various restoration experts show in repairing and/or restoring all manner of old, worn or broken items that have been brought in by members of the public. The team includes woodworkers, clock and watch experts, paint conservationists and even two Teddy Bear experts. All of them show great skill and imagination as well as having pleasing personalities.

Suzie Fletcher specialises in leather restoration and with decades of experience seems to be able to solve any problem in the world of leather. Her brother Steve is also on the programme specialising in clocks and watches and all manner of mechanical items. In his case he inherited the skills from his grandfather who opened The Clock Workshop in Oxford back in 1910. The devilishly handsome Will Kirk is the resident wood restorer. He runs his own workshop in Wandsworth and again brings enormous skill and creativity to whatever task is put in front of him. Kirsten Ramsay is the ceramics expert on The Repair Shop. Prior to joining the show, Kirsten worked in the British Museum’s conservation department before starting her own private conservation business. Dominic Chinea is the resident metal expert. Prior to landing his role in the second series he worked for Rankin studios as a production designer where he built props and backdrops for events and editorial photo shoots. Amanda Middleditch and Julie Tatchell are the resident Teddy Bear experts although, of course, they work on other stuffed-toy repairs. In 2006 they together set up their own restoration company called Bear It In Mind, which is still running today. They also host a podcast together called Bearly Begun. Lucia Scalisi is The Repair Shop painting restorer; she previously worked for the V&A Museum’s restoration team and has also lectured at the Academy of Conservation in Tbilisi, Georgia.

But for me the real star of the show is the presenter Jay Blades. He is both gracious and motivating as the effective leader of the team. He is usually the one who greets members of the public as they come into The Repair Shop bringing their items and he gently questions them about the story which often involves tragedy and other serious problems around family. He is always courteous and seems to bring out the best in everyone. So, I was shocked when this week we watched the first in a new series that Jay has produced; a documentary entitled Jay Blades: Learning to Read at 51 showing his recent attempts, with the support of the charity Read Easy UK, to learn how to read.

Jay was raised in East London with his mother and maternal half-brother. His mother came to London from the West Indies at the age of 14. It turns out that his natural father left his mother before Jay was born and he only met him for the first time at the age of 21. At that time his father told him that he had four siblings, but in fact he is one of 26 children that his father sired in several different countries.

Jay has dyslexia although this was not diagnosed at school where he experienced terrible racism, which he also experienced from the police. With few qualifications he worked primarily in low-paid jobs as a labourer and in various factories but at the age of 31 he decided to study criminology as a mature student at Buckinghamshire New University. It was only then that he was diagnosed with the reading ability of an 11-year-old. After this with his first wife he set up a charity Out of the Dark, to train disadvantaged young people in furniture restoration. The charity lost its funding. His marriage broke down and he became homeless. He was supported by friends and by the Caribbean community and started a proper business in furniture restoration which became very successful. TV producers saw a short film about the charity that he’d founded which led to his work as a television presenter. He is now said to be worth over £2 million with his success in business and in various TV programmes. In the 2021 Birthday Honours he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to craft.

In the programme on learning to read Jay tells us that there are 8 million people in the UK with dyslexia. I do not know if that is correct, but I do know that the levels of literacy in the UK for an apparently advanced and developed country are surprisingly low. Dyslexia exists across many nationalities, but scientific research has found that English-speaking dyslexics suffered most as the language is so complex. The English language is made up of just 40 sounds, but these can be spelt in more than 1000 different ways. That contrasts with Italian for example with the language’s 25 sounds made up in just 33 ways. Thus, when we learn how to read it is not enough to simply identify typical sounds. If, for example, we take the letter combination “int” that could sound like mint or pint. Likewise, clove and love sound quite different even though their last three letters are the same.

According to the National Literacy Trust 16% of adults in the United Kingdom are considered to be functionally illiterate. Literacy levels are falling among younger generations, and it is said that one in five adults struggle to read and write. Adult literacy can be very disadvantaged for social skills as people may exclude themselves from some situations in order to protect themselves. In turn that can also lead to unemployment as some adults are afraid to admit that they are struggling. Some studies show that a stimulating home life can increase a child’s literacy levels. Sitting down with your child and reading with them or helping with their homework can increase brain activity. Many students learn in various different ways, and some feel left behind in the classroom. They are expected to understand the work set out for them when this may not be the best way for them to learn.

The charity with which Jay is working in the documentary, Read Easy UK, was set up to help people learn to read both individually and as a group. In many cases illiteracy can be prevented for adolescents and counteracted for adults. It is important that we consider the benefits of extracurricular activities for students and young people as they can also help with literacy skills.

In researching this blog, I tried to find out what are the levels of literacy in different countries. I seemed to remember that dyslexia was not known in Japan where of course the structure of language is so very different from European languages with thousands of characters but with only one way to pronounce them. This turns out to be false for as many as 25% of Japanese adults may have some form of dyslexia. I also remembered from a visit to Costa Rica a few years ago that adult literacy rates were very high. The story of Costa Rica is quite remarkable in that after the Second World War one particular president got rid of all the armed forces and took the proceeds from that saving to invest in education. As a result, Costa Rica achieved particularly high levels of literacy. Given that it also enjoyed easy access to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean it became an ideal place for US-based manufacturers of computer chips to invest in factories given the high levels literacy of the workforce and easy access to both oceans. On this occasion my memory proves correct as the adult literacy rate of Costa Rica has increased from 92.6% in 1984 to 97.9% in 2018.

So, what is meant by adult literacy rate? The total is the percentage of the population aged 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life. Generally, literacy also encompasses numeracy, the ability to make simple arithmetic calculations. This indicator is then calculated by dividing the number of illiterates aged 15 years and over by the corresponding age group population, multiplying the result by 100.

This might seem straightforward but then when we search the list of countries by literacy rate, we find rather strange results. The figures represented are almost entirely collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) on behalf of UNESCO, with 2015 estimates based on people aged 15 or over who can read and write. The global literacy rate for all people aged 15 and above is 86.3%. The global literacy rate for all males is 90.0% and the rate for females is 82.7%. The rate varies throughout the world, with developed nations having a rate of 99.2% (2013), South and West Asia having 70.2% (2015), and sub-Saharan Africa at 64.0% (20 15) Over 75% of the world’s 781 million illiterate adults are found in South Asia, West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and women represent almost two thirds of all illiterate adults globally.

Then when we consider the list of UN member states we find some quite odd, if not extraordinary results. The following countries are all listed with adult literacy rates of more than 95%:  Albania, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cayman Islands, Chile, China, Macau, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Grenada, Guadaloupe, Guam, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, New Caledonia, Oman, Palau, Palestine, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Saint Helena, Samoa, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Macedonia, Tajikistan, Tonga ,Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. I’m afraid that the sceptic in me finds that impossible to believe and indeed when I tell you that the figure in Ukraine, the poorest country in Europe, is calculated at 100%, I think you will agree with my scepticism. (I have underlined all the states with recorded adult literacy levels over 99%).

Now when I tell you that this list, which as I say comes from UNESCO, has no result at all for the following countries: Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, Hong Kong, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg. Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom or the United States, then my sceptical hackles rise even more greatly. We know that there is a link between economic success and high levels of literacy. We can also see that some of the poorest countries in the world are claiming very high levels of literacy while most of the richest countries in the world are not even reporting them to UNESCO. It may be that the simple test is simply not sufficient in recognising real levels of literacy. I cannot think that this very serious problem is being taken seriously.

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