Tackling functional illiteracy

Two and a half million people in the Netherlands have literacy and numeracy difficulties and so are less likely to play a full part in society. Government policy is to tackle this problem by providing courses to improve literacy and numeracy skills. We have audited the effectiveness of the policy. We asked whether the courses were adequate and whether they reached all the people who needed them.


The policies being implemented by the Ministers of Education (OCW), Social Affairs (SZW) and Health (VWS) are not on the same scale as the problem of functional literacy. Moreover, they address only a small part of the problem.

Government policy targeting only literacy

The policy on functional illiteracy is intended to benefit people who have linguistic and/or numeracy difficulties. In practice, however, very few numeracy courses are provided. The policy is directed solely at improving literacy skills. The ambitions in this field are modest: the ministers are seeking to improve less than 5% of the target group´s literacy skills in the period from 2016 to 2018. The courses that are offered, furthermore, are not designed to raise the participants to a ´basic´ literacy level but to an undefined level.

Indications that diverse target group is not reached

The target group is very diverse. It includes not only first and second generation immigrants but also the ethnic Dutch. It includes not only the functionally illiterate but also the functionally innumerate. The Minister of Education wants the courses to reach the entire target group. There are indications, however, that they are not doing so. In many regions, very few ethnic minority or older people take the courses. This was revealed by a survey we held among the regional coordinators of the courses.

Waiting lists for literacy courses

The Minister of Education does not think that increasing the budget would significantly increase the number of people taking the courses. Our survey findings, however, point in the other direction. Eight of the 13 regions we studied had waiting lists for literacy courses. According to the course coordinators, the waiting lists were due to a lack of funds and a lack of volunteers and teachers. In some regions, the limited budget meant participants could be enrolled only during a few months of the year.

Uncertain whether policy contributes to a decline in functional illiteracy

Although the Minister of Education has studied the impact of literacy courses in recent years, she does not know how many people reached a basic literacy level after taking a course. Nor does she know whether the courses increase or decrease the number of people who are functionally illiterate or have no impact whatsoever. The House of Representatives therefore does not known whether the policy helps reduce illiteracy.


We recommend that the Ministers of Education, Social Affairs and Health:

  • decide whether the literacy policy should also cover innumeracy and digital skills. If so, they should set targets and ensure that the budget is appropriate to the policy instruments;
  • periodically check that all the participants’ characteristics are known: gender, age and origin. Targeted measures can then be taken to reach groups that rarely if ever take the courses;
  • indicate whether the government’s current ambition is appropriate given the size of the problem;
  • provide a systematic insight into the starting and finishing level of those taking a literacy or numeracy course. It will then be known in broad lines how much the policy is contributing to reducing functional illiteracy.

Response of the Minister of Education

The Minister of Education wrote that she was holding talks with municipalities, literacy providers and voluntary organisations to address and prevent the waiting lists. She would urge the municipalities to improve the match between the courses and the many problems of illiteracy. She would draw more attention to numeracy and in particular to the relationship between literacy, numeracy and digital skills. The minister referred to numerous initiatives she had already taken in this area. The minister agreed that insight into the reach of the courses was necessary to ensure that they met the needs of the various target groups. In due course, the minister would evaluate the municipalities’ success at reaching the target groups. The minister thought it was not advisable to set literacy targets in terms of the number of adults who achieved a basic literacy level. Given the diversity of the target group, it was also not advisable to set general targets for the outcomes. The minister would take steps to measure the participants’ literacy and analyse the learning efficiency.

In our afterword we again pointed out that there was a gap between the problem and the policy. We think the ministers must indicate how they can match their ambitions to the size of the problem.