Adult Literacy and Numeracy - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents


There are many adults in this country who have low levels of literacy and numeracy skills—young and old, in and out of work, with and without children—who are trying to live their lives without the skills that many people take for granted. This low level of literacy and numeracy among adults needs to be tackled, not least for those adults who may be trapped in a cycle of either low-skilled jobs or unemployment. A survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (the OECD) in October 2013—based on interviews with 166,000 people in 24 countries—found that England and Northern Ireland was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. This low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.

We heard the experiences of adult learners, and of volunteers and paid professionals who teach adult literacy and numeracy. There are many programmes that help adults to gain better skills, which are set within specific contexts: in the workplace; in prisons; in community centres; in schools; and in homeless charities. Undoubtedly, the earlier the intervention the better, and we urge the Government to invest and promote family learning schemes—where parents learn, and encourage their children to learn. We are not persuaded that GCSEs are the gold standard by which adults' skills should be measured and assessed, and we urge the Government to take a more flexible approach to the way in which skills in adults are measured.

There are specific environments in which there are high numbers of adults with low literacy and numeracy skills. The Army is one such organisation, and it has a rigorous assessment programme and an effective training scheme which delivers literacy and numeracy skills. In contrast, there is much less rigorous and uniform assessment when adults claim for unemployment benefit—despite the fact that this is an ideal opportunity to help adults to gain essential skills needed to get a job.

What is really important is the need for flexibility, both in the types of programmes on offer—by both voluntary and paid organisations—and in the types of funding given by the Government. We know that funding is limited, but we are concerned that funding has been cut to adult learning schemes, including Unionlearn, which have achieved outstanding results at a fraction of the cost of full-time formal education. Such short-sighted financial savings risks the imposition of long-term costs, as such cuts will make it harder for adults with limited literacy and numeracy skills to gain employment and to help their own children.

Adult literacy and numeracy are included in the remit of many Government Departments—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence—and there should be appropriate cross-Departmental support in developing and implementing adult literacy and numeracy policies and programmes. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should take the lead in promoting closer collaboration between the Departments, and a civil servant in each relevant Department should be chosen to act as a champion for adult literacy and numeracy. Should this approach not deliver better collaboration and long-term planning between Departments, the BIS Minister should be given more formal powers to intervene.

The ability to gain literacy and numeracy skills should be considered a fundamental right of all adults. Improved skill levels contribute to the social and economic well-being of individuals and the country as a whole. It is essential that the Government develops clear strategies and guarantees funding for effective initiatives that improve adult literacy and numeracy levels.

Above all, the Government should launch a high-profile national campaign to promote its funding for free training and tuition for any adult wanting to study English and maths up to and including GSCE level. It should also help adults in finding the most appropriate and nearest help, with either voluntary schemes or more formal classes.

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Prepared 8 September 2014