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Westminster Hall

Thursday 26 June 2008

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Skills for Life

2.30 pm

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I welcome those few colleagues who are here to join us for this important debate. The subject is one that the Minister takes a particular interest in—skills for life. We are debating a Government motion. This is not the case in many Westminster Hall debates, but the first speaker is the Minister.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): I am pleased to be here in the House this afternoon to discuss skills for life, Sir Nicholas, and I welcome the opportunity for a debate on a critical area of the Government’s skills agenda.

I know that you, Sir Nicholas, will appreciate that the abilities to read and write, to perform mental arithmetic and to manage money are so essential to modern life that anyone who struggles with those basic skills is at a huge disadvantage at work, in the supermarket, as a parent and as a citizen. In a knowledge economy that places a premium on high-level skills, we simply cannot afford to have any people of working age in that position. We must ensure that people who scrape by without basic skills—whether they are sales assistants, hospital porters, care workers or car mechanics—have the opportunities and encouragement to improve their prospects and realise their ambitions.

Without question, we are in the midst of a global skills race. Every workplace, every further education college and every university will have to adapt, so that Britain’s skills base has firm foundations in every area, from basic numeracy to cutting-edge nanotechnology.

Since 2001, the Government’s skills for life strategy has transformed the basic teaching of literacy, language and numeracy skills with new national standards, curricula, national testing and an increasingly well-qualified work force. Over the past seven years, we have invested £5 billion in that programme and as a result 5.7 million adults have improved their skills, taking 12 million courses.

Those courses take place not only in FE colleges, but in waste management sites, bus depots, libraries, unionlearn centres and all sorts of workplace settings all over the country. Indeed, earlier this week I was pleased to announce that more than 2.25 million adults have gained first qualifications through that investment, meaning that we have met our 2010 public service agreement targets two years early. Those figures are a tribute to the combined efforts of teachers, colleges, unions and, of course, the learners themselves.

Skills for life has faced significant challenges in generating demand, building capacity and improving the experience of adults who must overcome fear, inertia and many practical obstacles so that they can return to learning. Those adults are now more effective at work, they can help their children with their homework and they are
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more likely to gain qualifications. I am pleased that the National Audit Office report published earlier this month recognised the progress being made by the strategy, engaging more hard-to-reach learners, convincing more employers of the need to invest in basic skills, increasing the provision delivered outside formal settings and improving teaching quality.

Let us be in no doubt, however, about the challenges that still lie ahead of us. In England, an estimated 5.2 million people aged between 16 and 65 would fail GCSE English and an estimated 6.8 million people lack the numeracy skills expected of an 11-year-old. Skills shortages at that level may cost the country as much as £10 billion annually, in lost revenue from taxes, lower productivity and the needless burden that is placed on the welfare state.

At the same time, the Government response to the findings of Lord Leitch has set ambitious targets in this area. The goal is for 95 per cent. of adults to have functional literacy and numeracy skills—in other words, the skills that are the basis for a decent job and further studies—by 2020. To that end, we expect to spend more than £600 million a year over the next three years on improving adult literacy and numeracy, because we must keep pace with international competition to be a global leader economically and to be world-class on skills.

This afternoon, I want to focus on numeracy because, as the NAO report noted, we have made less progress on that front than on raising literacy levels. Before I do so, let me stress that numeracy represents only one part of our broader skills strategy. Basic numeracy is one end of a continuum that involves introducing functional mathematics in secondary schools, giving all pupils with an aptitude for science the option to study triple science at GCSE and expanding the number of science and engineering ambassadors who inspire young people to aim for careers in those fields.

Our purpose is not simply economic. I have spoken before about how a good grounding in the so-called stem subjects is essential in a democracy that must consider the pros and cons of genetically modified foods, biometric data or nuclear energy. With such a grounding, people are in a better position to make informed decisions for themselves, their families or society.

With no such grounding, however, the dilemmas that people face are much more fundamental. For the innumerate, cooking to a recipe becomes a matter of guesswork, since measurements are meaningless; booking a holiday is a lottery, because they cannot extract information from a table of dates and tariffs; and counting money in a shop is all about looking the part and not about checking to see whether they have been short-changed. We cannot turn back the clock for middle-aged people who, for whatever reason, did not acquire the basics as schoolchildren, but we must address the situation whereby people attempt to muddle through the rest of their lives in shame and confusion.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to transform a culture of acceptance of poor mathematical skills. We have a tendency to regard people with a genuine interest in maths as “boffins” or “nerds”. At the same time, too many people get into debt because they do not understand compound interest. It is a formula for waste and inefficiency, in both the private and public sectors, when staff cannot manage money or their own time. That puts us at a real
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disadvantage against countries where there is no cultural squeamishness about numbers and where mathematical ability is held in high regard.

A 2006 study by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy found that men and women aged 30 with poor numeracy were twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy. Moreover, men with poor numeracy were at greater risk of depression and women with poor numeracy were more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and to feel that they lacked control over their lives. Quite simply, without numeracy we struggle to make sense of the world around us.

All told, people lacking basic literacy and numeracy generally opt first to tackle their problems with literacy. According to our research, numeracy is much more daunting, with anxiety about the nature of the courses a contributing factor.

The Government are helping adults to escape the frustration and misery of poor numeracy in several ways, and I want to summarise three of them. The first is about changing attitudes and generating demand for courses. In March, we launched the national numeracy campaign. Hon. Members have probably seen the television adverts featuring hand-based characters, which build on the success of the previous Gremlins campaign. In the first three weeks of broadcast, the helpline received around 10,000 calls, with a further 20,000 people visiting the campaign website. Other approaches that are being considered include, of course, celebrity endorsements, partnerships with supermarkets and a focus on issues around children’s homework.

At the same time, we are looking to build demand in the workplace through the skills pledge and Train to Gain, the main skills service for employers. It is vital that employers, with the help of the Train to Gain brokers, first recognise the skills shortages within their own business and then access free skills for life training for their staff through colleges and providers who can tailor what they offer according to specific need. Literacy and numeracy are now available as stand-alone qualifications in Train to Gain and are also embedded in vocational programmes, and the right to request time for training will be a powerful lever for bringing about the skills revolution that we so desperately need.

The integrated employment and skills agenda is similarly important. From 2009, there will be basic skills screening for new jobseeker’s allowance and lone-parent income support claimants, with referrals, where necessary, to local providers. Similarly, skills health checks will be available through the new Adult Advancement and Career Service, which enters the pilot stage this autumn. If work-based learning proves too daunting, there are further means to develop skills. For example, family numeracy courses and IT programmes are helpful and will be extended. There is often less stigma associated with admitting poor computing skills, and those courses provide a chance to address numeracy problems as well.

The second area involves ensuring that providers are focused on numeracy. For the current spending review period, we have set separate literacy and numeracy targets. We will expect all providers to screen their literacy students for numeracy skills needs. Above all,
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no learner should complete a Government-funded course at level 2 without their basic skills being assessed and addressed.

Thirdly, we need more qualified teachers to support adults with unhappy memories of school. We have extended existing incentive schemes, including £9,000 bursaries and £4,000 golden hellos to attract more numeracy teacher trainees. We have funded the development of flexible routes into skills for life teaching involving accelerated and top-up courses. Altogether, we have £1 billion per year for skills for life funding, and I will shortly be launching a strategic plan for numeracy that sets out how we will ensure value for money on that investment—not just for basic skills, but at every level.

We must consign to the past the notion that it is okay to be rubbish at maths. In the same way that it is unacceptable for an adult not to be able to read, it should be unthinkable that any adult cannot perform basic mathematical functions. Anyone in that position needs our help, but they will also benefit from living in a society that regards numeracy as necessary, exciting and enabling.

2.43 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, and a great pleasure to take part in such an important debate.

I pass on apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who would have loved to take his place here this afternoon but has been unavoidably detained. I have stepped into the breach at fairly late notice to carry out his responsibilities. However, I assure the Minister that my hon. Friend’s absence has nothing to do with the acid put-down that he received in the Chamber this morning from a certain hon. Member who shall remain nameless.

Developing the nation’s skills to maximise economic prosperity and improve social justice is an ambition that I am sure everyone here shares. Leitch was right to set policy makers the challenging ambition of making the United Kingdom a world leader in skills by 2020.

In a perfect world, every school leaver would have skills suitable for an independent life and schemes such as this one would be unnecessary, but the dream could not be further from reality now as more than 40,000 young people finish school functionally illiterate or innumerate. It is a scandal that anyone should leave school after 12 years of compulsory education without being able to read, write or count.

Nevertheless, the Government’s failure in our schools is no slight against the skills for life programme. In 2001, a report commissioned from the now Lord Moser stated:

I am sure the Minister agrees that that analysis still holds true today.

The skills for life programme was and, unfortunately, still is important in trying to skill those more than 40,000 school leavers who have been failed by the school
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system. I am encouraged that skills for life has met its overall targets this year, and I hope that people who leave school without basic skills use the programme to widen their opportunities as individuals, but the Government should never be complacent, and they should not be happy with the status quo. I am sure that the Minister is not happy with it.

At the beginning of the month, the National Audit Office published the report, “Skills for Life: Progress in Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy”, which outlines several areas where the programme needs to improve to fulfil its potential and increase its value. Ministers should be seriously concerned that numeracy is improving much more slowly than literacy. Only 10 numeracy qualifications have been achieved for every 100 people with numeracy skills below the level of a good GCSE grade A* to C. It is no surprise, therefore, that the report also highlights the lack of numeracy teachers attracted to the scheme. In 2006, the number of numeracy teachers was lower than 6,100, compared with more than 9,000 teachers of literacy. The report also highlighted the fact that only 35 per cent. of the teachers hold relevant qualifications, although it was good to hear the Minister say that a recruitment drive is on to improve the situation.

Following the Leitch review of skills, the Government set a target that, by 2020, 95 per cent. of the adult population should have functional numeracy at entry level 3, which equates to the level expected of an 11-year-old. Bodies such as the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education have expressed serious concern that the target will not be met. Much more attention is needed to boost both demand and supply of classes. It is vital that such issues are addressed thoroughly in the Department’s numeracy plan.

The second area that needs serious and urgent attention is the programme’s failure to have an impact on the hardest-to-reach adults. The NIACE states that people with the lowest level of skills have barely been touched by the skills for life strategy. It is obviously a huge worry that the target-driven nature of skills for life has, in the opinion of the NIACE, led to providers neglecting entry level provision as

We endorse the conclusion in the report that to engage hard-to-reach learners, voluntary organisations at the heart of local communities must play a bigger role in skills for life. As the report and the NIACE conclude, local groups are best placed to identify the needs of learners in their community. We urge the Government to implement the report’s suggestions.

Another group of people to whom the strategy has given little attention is the elderly, yet that group has the highest concentration of people with literacy and numeracy problems of any in society. One area in which older adults typically need reskilling is financial literacy. Changes to the way people handle their money such as chip and PIN, online banking and an increase in direct debit have left many older people behind. As we continue to find through skills for life, older adults are harder to engage.

A survey by Help the Aged identified several barriers to participation in adult education. For example, 39 per cent. of older people agree that adult education courses are out of their price range, 37 per cent. say they have no access to transport to get to the courses on offer, a disturbing 64 per cent. are concerned about the threat
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of crime when they go out and 43 per cent. agree that there is not enough information on what adult education courses are available. At the very least, the Government need to consider, before implementation, the impact that policies will have on upskilling and reskilling the elderly.

Surely the cultural barriers to learning for the elderly were enormously exacerbated by the Government’s decision to cut funding to adult and community learning. Numeracy rates and engagement with the hardest to reach are disappointing, but if the Government carefully study the NAO report and implement its recommendations, they will find that both are areas that can and will improve.

The one area in which there is continued underachievement is the Train to Gain programme. The take-up of skills for life through Train to Gain was expected to reach 62,808 at the start of 2008. By the end of January 2008, there were only 34,250 skills for life learners. As the NIACE argued, that failing reflects the narrow focus of Train to Gain. The fundamental problems of Train to Gain cannot be underestimated. The NIACE says:

Skills for life has made progress and is to be applauded. We all want a society in which every school leaver has the skills to be able to live a prosperous and fulfilling life, but achieving targets and ticking boxes should not lead to a complacent Government. The NAO report clearly spells out numerous areas in which the programme should improve. It is a moral scandal that in 2008 there are so many people who could not even read the NAO report.

2.51 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I am afraid that I do not have the nicely crafted speech of my two predecessors. I put my notes together at rather short notice. I was also slightly uncertain when I saw the title of the debate as to whether we were discussing the narrow skills for life and basic skills agenda, or whether we were considering the skills that we need to develop, improve and extend over a lifetime. Therefore, I will dip a bit between the two, particularly as I could not let today go by without making a few comments about the next stage of our equality programme, which we launched today with the Equality Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiry that I chaired and presented us with a number of good examples of how we could promote opportunities to extend skills for women. I would like to touch on that matter fairly briefly at the end.

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