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

3  Adult literacy and numeracy schemes

If you can get people's expectations to turn around, you can turn their lives around. [Matthew Hancock MP][24]

The type of adult literacy and numeracy provision

16. We asked whether provision of adult learning should be along formal, classroom-based lines, or on a more flexible and informal basis, where the subject is taught in a context that relates more directly to learners' own lives. For some people, a classroom context can revive a sense of failure they felt when at school; others may benefit from the structure it provides. Tracey, a learner from Leicester College, described how she felt when at school: "When I got to the exams, I knew that I was going to fail them, and I didn't want a piece of paper saying, "You've failed".[25]

17. There is no right or wrong way of teaching adults these skills; different styles of learning programmes are required. The type of provision depends on each adult, and whatever style of learning helps them to develop their literacy and numeracy skills is the right one for them. The motivation of adults is crucial and that motivation might not fit well with participating in formal GCSE English and maths classes. Libby Coleman, co-author of the one-to-one teaching and reading book, Yes We Can Read,[26] highlighted what it means not to have basic skills, and described why she developed her teaching aid:

    When we are talking about basic skills, we are talking about something you just need the confidence to be told how to do. We felt that we had to produce something that anyone who could read could use, whether they were autistic, 80 years old or Travellers who had just learnt to read themselves; it did not matter. It had to be applicable for everyone, as long as we could follow the steps.[27]

18. The Association of Colleges also noted that functional skills are as important as qualifications:

    Functional literacy and numeracy is a valuable tool. The reformed GCSEs may be unhelpful if they do not allow students to demonstrate the skills employers need in 16 to 18-year-olds. Any reform of GCSEs in maths and English must ensure they have more functionality (ie relevance to the workplace) to capitalise on the evidence of how maths and English skills are both developed as concepts and retained in practical applications.[28]

19. Tom Wilson, the Director of Unionlearn—the learning and skills arm of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)—agreed, telling us that one of the reasons why more formal-based teaching does not work for adults is that they are not being treated as adults:

    They are effectively sent off to the local college, and what the local college does, with the best will in the world, is put them back in a classroom. That is exactly the environment that failed them in the first place. That is the worst thing you could do. That happens a lot to 16 and 17-year-olds, who move on from school to college hoping that they will be entering a very different environment and knowing that they want to get up to Level 2 maths and English, but the college, with the best will in the world, is not really able to provide the different, more challenging, more interesting and more contextualised environment that treats them like adults. Very often, you find that those same 16 and 17-year-olds are disappointed and failing because they are not getting something that is different to what they have just had at school.[29]

20. Karen Adriaanse, from Ofsted, told us that there was "very much room for both"[30] professional and volunteer programmes, supplementing each other for the benefit of learners:

    It all depends on the individual learners. Some will benefit. […] Peer support, which I know people have already promoted, can be absolutely invaluable as a start and then it may be that to develop those initial skills and build on those skills, they may need the professional support to learn the skills that employers need and be in charge of their own learning. On the other hand, there may be some learners who need more professional support first and then will need mentors or volunteers to help them reinforce or maintain their skills in the future.[31]

Examples of context-specific learning schemes are explored more in Chapter 6.


21. Helen Casey, from the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC), explained the strains on the GCSE system, in having to meet so many different requirements:

    There is a big tension inside GCSE between it being preparation for higher study in that subject and preparation for life and work. We are told that employers want GCSEs, but I think that is the one they have heard of, and actually what employers actually want is literate, numerate staff. That is not necessarily what the GCSE does; it equips you for the next stage in that subject.[32]

Connected with this point is the fact that GCSEs are used as the measurement and achievement of adults in improving their skills. As the City & Guilds written evidence highlighted, there seems to be a contradiction in the Government's thinking:

    On the one hand, it seems to recognise that learning needs to be engaging and personalised, focusing on learners' real world application of English and mathematics within contexts that are relevant to their life and work experiences. On the other hand, the Government's pre-occupation with GCSE as a single 'gold standard' at Level 2 for all learners in all settings would seem to be run counter to that message. The move towards 'linear' qualifications with one final assessment will also make these qualifications very difficult to deliver in anything other than a traditional academic setting where learners study often over two full years. This model may not be conducive to the audience we are trying to reach.[33]

22. The Government written evidence states that:

    We have embedded English and maths in all our major programmes, including Apprenticeships and traineeships, and within study programmes for 16-19 year olds to ensure people understand the significance of these subjects.[34]

In our 2012 inquiry into Apprenticeships,[35] we highlighted the problem of the requirement for apprentices to take GCSE exams in English and maths. The Edge Foundation wrote that:

    Some young people choose apprenticeships because they are fed up with classroom study. Some take GCSE exams in English and maths several times without achieving the magic grade C: it may not be easy to make them carry on until they are 18.

    The answer to that particular challenge should be to make maths and English more relevant to the jobs apprentices are being trained to do. Indeed, there are examples where this happens already, with good results. However, it isn't easy to take best practice and implement it everywhere. One barrier is that people with the skills to teach-say-apprentice chefs might not have the skills to teach them maths and English as well: so who will? [36]

23. A learner from St. Mungo's Broadway highlighted the fact that being forced to follow a specific route, without paying attention to the specific learner, is not conducive to the ability to learn:

    I feel I need, and in general people need, sustained support from all services working together, with lots of different models. Failure is part of the journey, but you have to understand that a punitive system does not incentivise—you need a system with constructive, sympathetic support. Reading does matter, and writing and IT skills are important to everyone, but unless these opportunities are offered across the board then people will keep repeating circles of unemployment and long-term homelessness.[37]

The need for a multifaceted approach to adult learning came across again and again in our evidence. Genevieve Clarke, a programme manager from the charity, the Reading Agency, described how they introduced the Six-Book Challenge:

    It is a very simple thing of being invited to read six things; they do not have to be books. We were talking about people who, in some cases, cannot manage the Quick Read books, which are very short.[38] It is reading material and they log it in a reading diary; they have to write a few words about it, so it involves writing as well. At the end they receive a certificate. In many cases, that is the first certificate they have ever had. It is motivation and reward along the way: 90% of those surveyed say that taking part gives them more confidence.[39]

Moreover, this concept of reading six books is imbedded within a structure that involves many organisations: public libraries; Further Education colleges; prisons; Unionlearn; hospitals; the Army; and other employers.[40]

24. English and maths programmes for adults have to be flexible if they are to be successful, which means that the Government should not be pre-occupied with GCSEs being the only measurement at Level 2 for all learners in all settings. The Government has successfully recognised that a more flexible approach to learning reaps success, and therefore the accompanying Government funding must move away from the traditional, linear approach to achieving qualifications.

The standard of English and maths providers

25. Written evidence from Ofsted outlined the fact that out of the 54 inspections in foundation English and maths, over half required improvement or were inadequate:

    Since the introduction of our revised Common Inspection Framework for further education and skills (2012), we have regularly inspected foundation English and mathematics.[41] Inspection evidence from September 2012 to August 2013 shows that:

·  in the 54 inspections of these subjects, separately or in combination, more than half (54%) required improvement or were inadequate

·  more than half (56%) of provision of foundation mathematics when inspected in its own right was judged to require improvement or be inadequate

·  almost three quarters (74%) of foundation English inspected alone required improvement or was inadequate.

26. Karen Adriaanse, Ofsted's Special Adviser for Improvement for Further Education and Skills, described the poor level of attainment:

    That is a concern that we have had and certainly the Chief Inspector mentioned that in his Report. […] We do have some excellent examples or purposeful, stimulating and inspirational teaching and learning that works. On the other hand, where the learning is dull and demotivates, it does not help anybody at all and it is not a good use of public funds either.[42]

Karen Adriaanse went on to describe the lack of support available to teachers of adult literacy and numeracy:

    There still is not a strong culture in this country that teaching English and maths to adults who have not been able to succeed in the past is a difficult thing to do, and it needs to be recognised as a high professional career with post-graduate qualifications and support to ensure they really have the expertise to motivate them.[43]

Connected with this was the call for a greater emphasis on career structure for people delivering adult learning, so that training provides teachers with an understanding of maths and English. Karen Adriannse told us that "I would not want to teach anybody to spell or to read. What I want to do is to help them understand how they do it and give them support so they, in the future and for the rest of their lives, can teach themselves to spell and to read".[44] She called for a reintroduction of the post-graduate qualification for adult learning, which was stopped in the early 1990s.[45]

27. The Government needs to study the type of adult literacy and numeracy provision on offer. The Ofsted results on the provision of adult literacy and numeracy show a mixed bag of provision; some are excellent, but many need to improve. If the Government is successful in persuading adults to improve their maths and English skills, then those adults cannot be let down by inadequate provision. We support voluntary organisations, which do a tremendous amount in supporting adult learners. Such voluntary schemes are run in tandem with other provision involving qualified teachers. To support these teachers, post-graduate qualifications should be reintroduced, to reinforce the fact that adult learning is a specialist job and to ensure that the best teachers are helping adults to improve their English and maths.

28. The Association of Colleges highlighted the difference in funding given to 11-16 year olds and 16-18 year olds:

    Expecting colleges to ensure that all young people without maths and English at grade A* - C at the age of 16 have these qualifications at 18 with £1400 less funding for a 16-18 year old than a 11-16 year old is not the solution. Adults with poor basic skills need to have a comprehensive offer that is accessible to them. Adult learning opportunities have reduced since 2010 with fewer young and older adults accessing learning opportunities year on year. Investment by local authorities in adult learning has reduced and colleges, under considerable funding and policy pressure, have also reduced adult education opportunities.[46]

29. The Skills Funding Agency and BIS have started to move towards the funding of units for adults, supported by awarding bodies such as City & Guilds. However, as David Hughes, from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), told us, this is being held back:

    That ability to pull in a number of units that meet people's immediate needs and allow them to take smaller steps, build confidence and build self-esteem is critical, but, again, it is held back by the amount of funding that is available and the quality of the teachers to be able to deliver that very personalised and quite difficult offer to people who need to be motivated and need a lot of extra support. As the money overall diminishes, at least in terms of the budget of the Skills Funding Agency in England, some of that hard-to-reach and hard-to-do extra supported learning gets pushed to one side.[47]

30. This point was reiterated by Caroline Robinson-Day, a literacy tutor with a background in providing literacy classes in Further Education Colleges, the workplace and community:

    Currently, learners are expected to pass one level per year with no opportunity for a learner to consolidate their skills. This is extremely important for learners working at Entry Level as many are learning to read and write. To give these learners more opportunity to work at their level enables them to develop their confidence which is a vital factor in their decision to carry on attending class. In addition to this it allows the learners to develop their language skills and discover reading for pleasure and writing for self expression as well as learning general literacy and employability skills. In my experience the profile and learning needs of adult learners are often ignored by policy makers and by those implementing the policy in some organisations.[48]

The need for adults with lower levels of English and maths to be allowed more time to consolidate their skills was also stressed in the BIS Department's written evidence:

    There are greater gains for lower level English and maths learners where courses involve tuition of over 100 hours, as learners require more support and time to make significant progress than is generally available in short courses.[49]

31. However, funding has also forced some colleges into making decisions on which courses to prioritise, and our evidence has shown that some colleges prioritise learners aged 16 to 19 on full-time courses, as incentivised by funding.[50] Funding also seems driven by the need for qualifications. Margaret Chadwick wrote of the experience of her daughter and friends trying to improve their English skills, and her daughter being told that the only available course was one she took years earlier:

    My daughter and a group of other young adults bothered to attend adult classes in the Stroud area for about 20 years. This was through illness, disability, snow, ice and whatever. When Stroud College joined with Bristol colleges, funding was reduced. My daughter had finally got her Level 2 numeracy and was trying hard to get from Level 1 to Level 2 Literacy when the class was dropped and she was told that the only class open to her would be one that taught Entry Level, which she had done several years ago. This faithful little group of about 9 adults disbanded. Learning had always been a struggle for them but they had persevered and enjoyed learning. […] In the light of sheer commitment and dedication of this group, I feel that they were let down because of financial restraints.[51]

32. We recommend that the Government reassesses how it funds adult literacy and numeracy courses and charities, and gives those organisations the flexibility to adapt their own courses for the individual concerned, while still, of course, ensuring accountability of providers in the process. Peer-based learning is equally valuable and should be promoted. The system should be flexible enough to support voluntary organisations, as well as formal-based classes.


33. We received written evidence from Jane, about her difficulties in learning maths:

    I'm a 57 year old woman; I work full time; I went back to education as a fulltime mature student and carried out work at the same time. I graduated with a BA Hons. I have diplomas for occupational therapy, law and welfare benefits, music and catering but when it comes to passing a GCSE/O Level in Maths I'm the pits![52]

There are other adults like Jane who are very capable at literacy, but who find maths extremely hard. But also, some adults have difficulty in understanding the maths texts. Mike Power, an Usdaw Union Learning Representative, described this: "Sometimes it's best for people to concentrate on their reading and writing skills before tackling maths. In the early stages we had maths learners who couldn't really understand the materials we were using. They thought it was a maths problem but I could see it was their English skills that needed improving first".[53] Libby Coleman, co-author of the one-to-one teaching and reading book, Yes We Can Read, made the same point to us: "Until you can read for meaning, you cannot use a computer and you cannot start looking at maths".[54]

34. National Numeracy, an independent charity that focusses on adults and children with low levels of numeracy, stated that adult numeracy and literacy should be treated equally:

    Adult numeracy is a long neglected area that now deserves urgent attention. […] Government initiatives over the past 15 years have had no significant impact on adult numeracy. Whereas there has been some improvement in adult literacy, numeracy levels have actually shown a slight decline and from a far lower base. Adult numeracy and literacy should be treated equivalently. It should no longer be assumed that a lower level of numeracy is acceptable; doing so to date has hidden the true extent of the numeracy issues in this country. […] We believe that improving the quality and supply of the adult numeracy workforce is a key role for government and urge it to give this greater attention.[55]

Matthew Hancock MP praised National Numeracy is being "an absolutely brilliant organisation".[56] He also said it was unacceptable for people to claim they cannot do maths:

    One example that always frustrates me is that, particularly in maths, we have a cultural problem in that some people who get very high maths grades—for instance, they might have got a B at maths and As or A*s at everything else—think it is okay to claim that they are not very good at maths. It is not okay; it is completely unacceptable for people in positions of responsibility to claim that. Maths is as important as English, if not more important. In terms of the research, the research shows that the likelihood of getting a job is increased more by maths than it is by English. We are further behind on maths and we absolutely need to turn that culture around.[57]

For adults to claim that it is acceptable that they cannot do maths downgrades the crucial importance of maths, and is especially damning for children's aspirations, perpetuating a belief that maths is not crucial for their future careers.

35. All too often, adult numeracy is considered the poor relation to adult literacy, and the Government should encourage initiatives that seek to reverse the perception among adults that it is acceptable not to have functional skills in maths. The Government should seek to change the culture in which low levels of numeracy are considered acceptable. This must start at school.

24   Q202 Back

25   Leicester College transcript (ALE 82) extract Back

26   One of the Committee Members, Robin Walker MP, visited St Pauls Hostel, Worcester on 18 May 2014, and gave them two copies of Libby Coleman's book, Yes we can Read. When he visited again, on 18 July 2014, the hostel's literacy coordinator, Gerry Lowman, praised the book and its strength in helping adult learners in a one-to-one environment, especially for learners with dyslexia.  Back

27   Q34 Back

28   Association of Colleges (ALE 23) para 13 Back

29   Q44 Back

30   Q175 Back

31   Q175 Back

32   Q12 Back

33   City & Guilds (ALE 28) page 3 Back

34   Department for Business Innovation and Skills (ALE 36) para 1.5 Back

35   Business Innovation and Skills Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2012-13, Apprenticeships, HC 83-1 Back

36   Business Innovation and Skills Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2012-13, Apprenticeships, HC 83-1, Written evidence submitted by the Edge Foundation, para 57 Back

37   St Mungo's Broadway transcript (ALE 81), extract Back

38   Quick Read Books are short books by best-selling authors, and are easier to read for adults who are less confident in their reading ability. See Quick Reads evidence (ALE 8) Back

39   Q149 Back

40   Q149 Back

41   Ofsted reports on provision in these subjects from entry level up to and including level 2 (GCSE grade A* to C or equivalent) as 'foundation English' and/or 'foundation mathematics'. Back

42   Q171 Back

43   Q172 Back

44   Q176 Back

45   Q176 Back

46   Association of Colleges (ALE 23) para 5 and 6 Back

47   Q20 Back

48   Caroline Robinson-Day (ALE 71) extract Back

49   Department for Business Innovation and Skills (ALE 36) para 4.5 Back

50   S.Ozkan (ALE 73) extract Back

51   Margaret Chadwick (ALE 72) extract Back

52   Jane (ALE 58) extract Back

53   TUC (ALE 41) case study 2 Back

54   Q34 Back

55   National Numeracy (ALE 4) summary Back

56   Q211 Back

57   Q208 Back

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Prepared 8 September 2014