2 Current situation |
We have been damned [
] by a culture of
low expectations and by poor quality provision that has meant
that most countries in the world have gone from being behind us,
in terms of capabilities, to ahead of us over four generations.
[Matthew Hancock MP]
Understanding the problem
6. The quotation above is from Matthew Hancock MP,
the former Minister for Skills and Enterprise.
He described to us the low levels of adult literacy and numeracy
in England and Northern Ireland. While the different levels of
numeracy and literacy are widely discussed, they are rarely defined.
They are broadly as follows:
skills are the core elements of English, maths and ICT that give
people the skills and abilities they need to carry out their lives
effectively, confidently and with independence;
level skills are below level 1, and an adult at this level may
be able to read an article in a newspaper, but slowly and with
1 literacy and numeracy skills equates to a D to G grade in GCSEs,
and is judged to be the level of skill needed for adults to function
effectively in society;
2 of adult literacy and numeracy equates to an A to C in GCSEs,
and adults may have different levels of skills in reading, writing,
speaking and listening.
7. Helen Casey, from the National Research and Development
Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, highlighted the problems
of comparing adults' literacy and numeracy skills with levels
within the school curriculum:
The parallels with the curriculum in schools
really do not work, because the developmental stage that a seven-year-old
is at does not equate to an adult who is a fully-functioning person
who happens to not have reading and writing skills.
8. These levels are used to compare not only adults
within this country, but also with other countries around the
world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
(the OECD) is an organisation that promotes polices to improve
the economic and social wellbeing of people around the world.
In October 2013, it published its International Survey of Adult
Skills, which was the result of interviews with 166,000 people
in 24 countries. (The survey included people from England and
Northern Ireland, but did not include people from Scotland or
Wales.) It found that:
is the only country in the developed world where the generation
approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the
youngest adults, with adults aged 55 to 65 in England performing
better than 16 to 24 year olds at foundation levels of literacy
of 24 developed countries, England's 16-65 year olds ranked 11th
in literacy and 17th in numeracy, with 16-24 year olds
ranked 22nd and 21st respectively;
was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for
numeracy out of 24 countries;
in full-time employment are most likely to have the highest levels
of literacy and numeracy. For literacy, unemployed people and
students in England scored lower than the OECD average, and for
numeracy, most groups generally performed lower than the OECD
of adults scored at or below Level 1 in numeracy compared with
an average of 19% across all OECD countries.
9. Commenting on the UK results, the OECD stated:
These results confirm the vicious cycle in which
low-skilled workers risk being trapped in a situation in which
they rarely benefit from adult learning and their skills remain
weak or deteriorate over time, making it even harder for these
individuals to participate in learning activities. The key priority
challenge is to help low-skilled adults break this cycle.
10. When he came before us, Matthew Hancock MP spoke
about the OECD Report:
What the Report showed was that we have been
damned in England and Northern Irelandfor that is what
it refers toby a culture of low expectations and by poor
quality provision that has meant that most countries in the world
have gone from being behind us, in terms of capabilities, to ahead
of us over four generations.
To appreciate fully the extent of the problem, it
is important to have detailed and accurate statistics. The Forest
Read Easy Deal's written submission made this point:
FRED would benefit greatly by Government providing
accurate and up to date statistics that show, truthfully, the
breakdown of adults struggling with literacy, according to area,
ie, the Forest of Dean, not just Gloucestershire or nationally.
These statistics also need to show important distinctions in gender
and culture as well as socio-economic. [
] Statistics are
crucial to funding bids: when so many people have legitimate claim
to limited funding sources, we need to make ours as decisive and
factual as possible. True and accurate statistics would help enormously.
11. A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
representative, Catherine Paulson-Ellis, explained that the Government
has commissioned further research, particularly on young people's
transition from school and college into the workplace and on skills
in the workplace, and that a report will be published later in
the year. The Minister
also announced the establishment of a new research centre for
maths and English, to find out the best way for adults to learn
English and maths:
It is a research project of over £2 million,
and the aim of it is to understand the incentives and people's
behavioural responses to why they do not learnwhat we can
do and how best we can ensure that they learn English and maths.
That is a new research project; I do not have the results yet.
We were told that the centre will be funded for three
years, after which the Government hopes that it will become self-sustaining
and draw funding from other sources.
12. There is still an alarmingly high proportion
of adults with low literacy and numeracy skills, a situation which
successive Governments have failed to address adequately. We welcome
the Government's announcement that a Behavioural Insights Research
Centre for maths and English is being set up to undertake scientific
analysis of how adults best learn English and maths. This is such
an important matter that the Government must produce an urgent
update. We also welcome the further work commissioned by the Department,
to investigate the reasons for the poor performance of England
compared with other countries, with respect to adult literacy
and numeracy. In its response, the Government should set out a
timetable for the work being completed, the findings being published,
and when action will be taken as a result of those findings.
Getting the message across
We heard from many people and organisations who believe
that adults who are struggling at entry level in English and mathsthose
adults who need the most helpare not being targeted enough
by BIS, in terms of investment. David Hughes, from the National
Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), told us:
A lot of investment from BIS goes into people
who are already at Level 1 or Level 2 in terms of literacy and
numeracy, and it misses an enormous number of people at Entry
Level. That is the hardest group to get to; it is the hardest
group to motivate; and they are the people who are most skilled
at getting round the fact that they have poor literacy and numeracy.
There is a really big challenge about that.
13. Matthew Hancock MP defended the Government's
position, stating that "this is a perennial challenge of
persuading those who do not have very low-level skills, to first
give them the confidence to know that they can get the skillsthey
will be paid for and that they can themselves do itand
it is also about reaching people".
However, the role of the Government is to tackle such a challenge,
by targeting those adults who are unable or unwilling to seek
help, with a concerted outreach programme. Audio evidence from
some learners at Leicester Collegeand a significant amount
of other written submissionshighlighted the fact that not
enough adults know that there is free provision for English and
maths training, up to and including GCSE level. One of the learners,
Mohammed, suggested the following ways of publicising the availability
of free classes:
I think that the information is out there, but
for some people it's not accessible. If this information was made
available at places where people gocommunity centres, churches,
mosques, doctors' surgeries, even supermarketsand they
could see it and then are motivated to find more about it, I think
that would help.
Karen Adriaanse, an HM Inspectorate (HMI) from Ofsted
and Ofsted's Special Adviser for Improvement for Further Education
and Skills, agreed, telling us:
Where you can change the culture and one of the
things the Government could doand certainly started to
do in the pastis to raise the profile nationally of English
and maths across the board. I think talking about basic skills,
literacy and numeracy, is not necessarily helpful. Talking about
English and maths will almost instantly raise the profile. There
needs to be things to diminish the stigma. It is how it is promoted
through everyday lives, whether it is received in things like
soap operas or films so people understand that this is a problem
that everybody has, and also then celebrating when it makes a
14. There are problems with reaching out to learners,
but also for learners to find the courses that are relevant to
them. We received evidence from a wife explaining her husband's
difficulty in finding adult literacy classes:
Back in around 2001-2002 there was a television
program about adult literacy and through this we contacted a helpline
and subsequently took part in an evening course at a local school.
This came to an end after about 18 months and since then we have
been trying to find a replacement course to no avail. I have contacted
all our local schools and colleges, explored every avenue on the
internet and sent countless emails but nobody seems able to help.
However, we heard from many organisations, including
formal classroom-based courses and other, equally effective voluntary
schemes that do a tremendous amount in supporting adults with
learning needs. What
is missing is a comprehensive way of accessing information about
15. The Government has pledged funding for free
training and tuition for any adult who wants to study English
and maths up to and including GCSE level, but it needs to get
the message across to adults with limited English and maths skills
that this help is available. To make sure that this message reaches
the right people, we recommend that the Government carry out a
high-profile national campaign to promote robustly this initiative.
This must be treated as a priority. The Government must publish
a timetable of how and when the national campaign will be launched.
Coupled with this national campaign, the Government should develop
clear signposting routes, helping adults to find the most appropriate
and nearest help (either voluntary schemes or more formal classes).
The Government should report back in its response on the methods
it will use to develop this initiative.
6 Q208 Back
As of 15 July 2014, Nick Boles MP is the Minister of State for
Skills and Equalities, and has responsibility for vocational education. Back
NIACE, Work, Society and Lifelong Literacy: Report of the inquiry
into adult literacy in England, September 2011 Back
Department for Business Innovation and Skills (ALE 87) para
TUC (ALE 41) para 2 Back
TUC (ALE 41) para 4.1 Back
FRED (ALE 63) page 2 Back
Leicester College (ALE 82) extract Back
Leicester College transcript (ALE 82) extract Back
Voluntary organisations will be studied in greater detail in Chapter