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22% of Irish adults were below Level 1 on the literacy scale.
22% of Irish adults were below Level 1 on the literacy scale.
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Why, in 2017, do we require a literacy service? We will still need one in 2040

“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors,” Maya Angelou.

WHY is there a need for literacy services in modern day Ireland?

In 2013, the Central Statistics Office published the Irish results of an OECD programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). A total of 24 countries took part in the survey.

The results were compared to the 1997 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). They showed 22% of Irish adults in 2007 were below Level 1 on the literacy scale. In 2013, this figure was 18%.

“Level 1 means that a person may have issues filling in forms. It is an indicator that a person may have issues at a specific level”, explained Paul McGlynn, a tutor at ABLES Adult Literacy Scheme, The Glen, Cork.

“The literacy problems that we encounter in this country are not unique. There is a perception that we are a country of high achievers. The reality is, there is an undercurrent of people who fall through the cracks. They fall through the cracks at primary level. A huge number of people fall through the cracks at secondary level,” said Paul.

“If the literacy service was successful, you would think we wouldn’t have a literacy problem. That’s not the reality. The reality is, we still have areas of social deprivation. We still have people who fail at second level. The problems that are endemic in our society are still here. Because of that, we still have people with literacy issues.”

ABLES is one of the adult literacy service providers in Cork City, headed by the Cork Education and Training Board (ETB). ABLES provides educational services, predominantly in the adult and post secondary school sectors.

Fiona Long is the resource worker at ABLES.

“We have tutors that do group work with classes of six people and up. Group work comprises of anything from the national framework, communications, maths, English as a second language (ESOL), computers”, said Fiona.

“We train volunteers to work with people on a one-to- one basis. We respond to whatever needs the community present. We are very flexible within our tuition.”

Mary McCarthy works as an administrator and volunteer tutor at ABLES. She meets with her students on a one to one basis and was driven to help others overcome their literacy issues from a young age.

“I’ve always had a want to help people because, when I was young, my grandmother couldn’t read or write. When I was eight years old, I taught her to write her name and I got a buzz out of it. She lived on an acre and a half. She had two pigs and two cows and when she sold the pigs or had to do anything with the cows, she had to fill in forms. That was my job.

“When I got the opportunity in 2008 to do the training course to become a volunteer tutor, I jumped at it”, said Mary.

She explained why she believes there is a need for literacy services in Ireland.

“I’m 56. I could give you 15 people who started primary school with me who didn’t finish. They had to go out and earn money,” said Mary.

“Then, we had this great boom in Ireland and then it fell apart. Now, you have people in their late forties, fifties who are out of a job they had been in for ten, twenty, thirty years. They don’t have the skill set to move,” said Mary. “A lot of these people are extremely clever. They just need a little bit of guidance. I would like people to know that we exist. When a person comes in here for help, it’s a big step for them. They may have never used a computer in their lives and they are now in a computer age.”

Paul McGlynn.
Paul McGlynn.

Paul worked predominantly as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Another Language) tutor.

“There is a difference between literacy and language. Generally speaking, the people that come to ESOL classes would not have literacy problems.”

For the last seven years, Paul worked with members of the Simon community. “ABLES, as a service, started providing courses in Simon about seven years ago.”

Initially, it was an ESOL service, along with a personal effectiveness course. That has blossomed into a complete service within the Simon community”.

The relationship between tutors and students seems to surpass that of the stereotypical teacher-pupil dynamic.

“There is no denying that you create relationships with students. You create friendships,” said Paul.

“Our engagement and involvement with another service, like Simon, has now blossomed into a dedicated education and training centre.

“You need to bring people on, bring them out of that situation, that poverty level. The most important thing is that somebody cares.

“You might have someone come in who has real issues, who is falling asleep at the table in front of you. As a tutor, you sit there and you try to work through that. Maybe in the coming weeks, you’ll see that person come back to you. Maybe over the next three or four sessions, that person isn’t having a drink before they come into you. Maybe that morning that you are having a class, they decide, ‘you know, I won’t go to the park, I’ll go to Paul’s class.

“I don’t think the measure of success is the fact that you’ve managed to get four or five people through a level 4 or level 5 accredited course. A success, for me, is that we engage with people and make a difference.

“Most of the people who access the literacy service, in some form or another, society has failed them. You ask, ‘why, in 2017, why we still have a literacy service’? In 2040, we will still have a literacy service because the underlying issues are always going to be there,” said Paul.

Many of the students who attend courses at ABLES have completed accredited courses. The staff at ABLES celebrate these successes, along with the personal success stories regaled by individuals.

“One of my students applied for her first job via the internet before we broke up for the summer. I’m so proud of her”, said Mary.

Fiona recalls a story of a man who was a student at ABLES many years ago.

“He had taken a trip to Knock. He came back and told us, ‘We stopped in the hotel and for the first time, I picked what I wanted off the menu’. Before, ‘Johnny’ beside him would say, ‘I’ll have turkey and ham’ and he’d say ‘I’ll have that too’.

“Whereas, this time, he had read the menu. That is a success. A man was able to hold his own and read a menu.”

The staff at ABLES are keen to spread the message that their door is open to people that may need their help and guidance.

Mary said; “Most people don’t know that places like this exist. I think they need to know that places like this exist.

“We are here to help and we will help, whatever the problem is”.

The contact details for ABLES Adult Literacy Scheme are: Fiona.long@corketb.ie or ABLES, Carnloch Drive, Glen Avenue, The Glen, Cork. 086 608 7111

* Paul McGlynn, who was interviewed for this feature, sadly passed away on September 1. His partner Ber kindly granted permission for Paul’s words to be published and shared with the public.

His legacy in championing and promoting literacy and the continuation of adult learning will be commemorated by his colleagues at ABLES this December.

A memorial will be held at the premises and one of the teaching rooms shall be named ‘The Paul McGlynn Room’.

We wish to offer our deepest and sincere condolences to Ber, Sadhbh (Paul’s daughter), Paul’s parents, siblings, extended family and friends.