Skills for Life: Progress in Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy - Public Accounts Committee Contents

1  The size of the adult literacy and numeracy problem

1. The United Kingdom has relatively high numbers of adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy compared with other countries.[2] In 2003, research[3] commissioned by the former Department for Education and Skills suggested that 23.8 million adults (75% of the adult population of working age) in England had numeracy skills below Level 2, the level of a good pass at GCSE, and 17.8 million (56 %) had literacy skills below this level (Figure 1). Prior to the 2003 research the scale of the problem had not been identified.[4]Figure 1: Literacy and numeracy qualification levels and their equivalents
Literacy and numeracy skill level
Functional level
National Curriculum Level
Level 2 GCSE grade


Level 1Functional literacy GCSE grade


4 to 5 (11 years)
Entry Level 3Functional numeracy 3 (9 to 11 years)
Entry Level 2 2 (7 to 9 years)
Entry Level 1 1 (5 to 7 years)

Source: C&AG's Report, Figure 1

2. The 2003 research also suggested that 5.2 million people lacked functional (Level 1) literacy and 6.8 million people lacked functional (Entry Level 3) numeracy.[5] The Department believes these levels represent the best approximation to what counts as functional competence for everyday living.[6]

3. The problem of high numbers of adults with poor numeracy and literacy skills is a legacy of a number of decades of schooling which did not equip enough people with basic literacy and numeracy skills. The Department believes that other contributing factors may have included the failure of some employers to consistently signal that they wanted these skills and would pay higher wages for them, some individuals' lack of aspiration and a poor national learning culture.[7]

4. The percentage of pupils leaving school with good GCSEs (grades A*-C) in English and mathematics is improving, but a large number of pupils are still leaving school without GCSEs in English and mathematics. In 2006-07, some 51,000 pupils (around 8%) left school without Level 1 (GCSE grade D-G) and 39,000 pupils (6%) without Level 1 English (Figure 2). Figure 3 shows regional variations in the number of pupils leaving schools in England without GCSEs in English and mathematics.

Figure 2: The percentage of pupils leaving schools in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales without achieving GCSEs in English and mathematics

Source; Department for Children, Schools and Families and the devolved administrations

Figure 3: Regional variations in the percentage of pupils leaving maintained English schools without achieving GCSEs in English and mathematics

Note: The data in Figure 2 is not comparable with the data in Figure 3. Figure 3 shows data for pupils in local authority maintained schools only. Figure 2 covers pupils in all schools.

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

5. Further reforms to the teaching of 14-19 year olds are designed to improve the basic skills of school leavers. These reforms included the introduction of functional skills in GCSEs in 2009 and 2010, changes to performance tables in schools to pick up whether schools are delivering English and mathematics as well as the rest of the five GCSE indicators,[8] and the introduction of a new suite of diplomas which have functional competence in literacy and numeracy integrated within them.[9]

2   Q 7 Back

3   The 2003 Skills for Life survey Back

4   Qq 35, 48, 59-61; C&AG's Report, para 1.5 Back

5   Q 35; C&AG's Report, para 1.5 Back

6   Q 12 Back

7   Qq 10, 66-67, 74-75 Back

8   The percentage of pupils who achieve at least five good GCSEs (grades A*-C), including English and mathematics is considered a key measure of success in schools. Back

9   Qq 11, 18-20, 36-37, 71-73; C&AG's Report, paras 2.8-2.9 Back

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Prepared 29 January 2009