With one in five 15-year-olds and 75 million adults lacking basic reading and writing skills, Europe desperately needs to improve its literacy standards, says Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.
Together with a high-level group of experts, Vassiliou, who is the EU's Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, has published areport on literacy, unveiled at a conference in Nicosia hosted by the Cyprus Presidency of the EU.
The report consists of recommendations ranging from parenting advice to setting up libraries in unconventional settings like for example shopping centres.
Vassiliou said that being illiterate makes it hard for a person to get a job and increases the risk of poverty and social exclusion.
"We are living a paradox: while reading and writing are more important and relevant than ever before in the context of our digitised world, our literacy skills are not keeping up," the Commissioner said.
"We urgently need to reverse this alarming situation. Investments to improve literacy among citizens of all ages make economic sense, producing tangible gains for individuals and for society, adding up to billions of euros in the long run."
The Cypriot Commissioner is calling for free, high-quality early childhood education and care for all, more specialist reading teachers in primary schools, and a change of mind-set on dyslexia.
She argues that almost every child can learn to read with the right support, and for more varied learning opportunities for adults, especially in the workplace.
Dutch princess leads EU literacy campaign
The chair of the expert group, HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, a long-time campaigner in the field, describes the report as a "wake-up call about the crisis that affects every country in Europe".
"Reading and writing are much more than a technique or a skill. Literacy is about people’s self-esteem and ability to function and flourish in society as private individuals, active citizens, employees, or parents," the Dutch princess said.
"We need clear, coordinated national strategies and much better awareness across Europe, not only in policy and educational circles, but also in hospitals, workplaces and especially in families. It is time for Europe to raise its level of ambition and ensure literacy for all," she added.
EU Education Ministers have set a joint target to reduce the ratio of 15-year-olds with poor reading skills from 20% at present to 15% by 2020.
The high-level group's report highlights a significant gender gap, with 13.3% of low achievers among girls compared with 26.6% for boys. The gender gap is smallest in the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, and highest in Malta, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
Greg Brooks, Emeritus Professor of Education, at the University of Sheffield said: "In the technological 21st century every new communication medium makes even heavier demands on literacy, so this initiative is both very timely and crucial to all our lives."
H.R.H. Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands has been committed to literacy for years. She said: "I greatly welcome this initiative as it is high time Europe faces up to the uncomfortable reality of high levels of illiteracy within its borders. This initiative will help address the taboo that exists to this day. Illiteracy stands in the way of economic growth and inclusiveness."
Former Portuguese Minister of Education, Dr. Roberto Carneiro, also added: "Europe participates in a global skills race whose outcome determines leadership in the 21st century. I see the HLG on Literacy as a sign of hope, one that Europe will continually invest in people and nurture talent as part of a Lifelong Learning for All Strategy."
Professor of Pedagogy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Georgios Tsiakalos, continued: "Despite the success of the decrease of low-achievers in Europe, the fact remains that non-European, particularly Asian countries, are improving at much faster rate. The establishment of HLGL is a response to this. The wealth of research, initiatives and support networks in education promoted by the European Union in the recent decades constitute a solid basis for the desired and necessary move forward."
"The Convention on the Rights of the Child declares that all children have an equal right to an education - literacy is a basic right," said Renate Valtin, professor of primary education (emerita) at Humboldt University.
"Also the German Reading and writing Association has declared ten children's rights of literacy. As international studies reveal, in many European countries these rights are not fully realised. The work of the group is important to draw attention to ways in which we can help realise children's rights," she added.
The Director of the French National Agency to Fight Illiteracy (ANLCI), Professor Marie Thérèse Geffroy said that in France, a lot of people did not acquire a sufficient command of reading, writing, calculating and other basic skills.
"This problem is a glaring problem that remains too often invisible. Many preconceived ideas still exist about it. I hope that the High Level group will contribute to clarify and organise the policy in order to prevent and fight illiteracy," Geffroy said.
Dr. Sari Sulkunen, who works as a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä, continued: "It is an honour to be a member in the High Level Group in literacy and contribute to its important work. I am looking forward to sharing the Finnish knowhow in the literacy studies and in the educational field with the other group members but also learning from them and their countries’ good practices and research."
4-5 Oct. 2012: Commissioner Vassiliou will discuss the report's findings with Education Ministers at their informal meeting in Cyprus.