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

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][6]

Understanding the problem

6. The quotation above is from Matthew Hancock MP, the former Minister for Skills and Enterprise.[7] 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:

·  Functional 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;

·  Entry 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 limited understanding:

·  Level 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;

·  Level 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.[8]

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.[9]

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:

·  England 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 and numeracy;

·  Out 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;

·  England was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries;

·  Adults 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 average;[10]

·  24% of adults scored at or below Level 1 in numeracy compared with an average of 19% across all OECD countries.[11]

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.[12]

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 Ireland—for that is what it refers to—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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15] 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 learn—what 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.[16]

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.[17]

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 maths—those adults who need the most help—are 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.[18]

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 skills—they will be paid for and that they can themselves do it—and it is also about reaching people".[19] 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 College—and a significant amount of other written submissions—highlighted 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 go—community centres, churches, mosques, doctors' surgeries, even supermarkets—and they could see it and then are motivated to find more about it, I think that would help.[20]

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 do—and certainly started to do in the past—is 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 difference.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23] What is missing is a comprehensive way of accessing information about available schemes.

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

7   As of 15 July 2014, Nick Boles MP is the Minister of State for Skills and Equalities, and has responsibility for vocational education. Back

8   NIACE, Work, Society and Lifelong Literacy: Report of the inquiry into adult literacy in England, September 2011 Back

9   Q12 Back

10   Department for Business Innovation and Skills (ALE 87) para 1.5 Back

11   TUC (ALE 41) para 2 Back

12   TUC (ALE 41) para 4.1 Back

13   Q208 Back

14   FRED (ALE 63) page 2 Back

15   Q204 Back

16   Q204 Back

17   Q205  Back

18   Q11 Back

19   Q209 Back

20   Leicester College (ALE 82) extract Back

21   Q172 Back

22   Leicester College transcript (ALE 82) extract Back

23   Voluntary organisations will be studied in greater detail in Chapter 3 Back

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Prepared 8 September 2014