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

Conclusions and recommendations

Understanding the problem

1.  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. (Paragraph 12)

Getting the message across

2.  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. (Paragraph 15)

The type of adult literacy and numeracy provision - GCSE's

3.  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. (Paragraph 24)

The standard of English and maths providers

4.  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. (Paragraph 27)

5.  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. (Paragraph 32)


6.  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. (Paragraph 35)

Referrals to adult training

7.  It is crucial that when someone starts claiming unemployment benefit, there is a method of testing his or her English and maths skills. When this happens at the moment, it is neither systematic nor consistent. We agree with the Work and Pensions Committee that Jobcentres should have a more thorough and systematic initial, face-to-face assessment of claimants, to understand the skills support they need to get a job. Assessments should be regularly updated during longer claims, with the relevant data being passed on to the Work Programme and other contracted providers, if claimants are referred on. We recommend better co-ordination between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jobcentre Plus and skills providers, to ensure that there is consistent and thorough assessment of basic skills needs at the earliest possible stage of unemployment benefit claims. There also needs to be better information sharing between providers and referral onto courses which effectively address identified needs. For this to be effective, the Government must marry together the learning regime and the Department for Work and Pensions regime, to ensure that unemployed adults have the most flexible opportunities to develop their skills. If this is approached in a constructive, cross-Departmental way, there will be benefits both to the learners and to the public purse. (Paragraph 46)

Screening tool for 18-24 year olds

8.  We were told by the Government of current pilot schemes, offering English and maths training for 18 to 21-year-olds, which include the development of a specific style of assessment that will be used for young people making a claim who cannot already provide evidence of their Level 2 skills through certificates. We look forward to hearing the results of the pilot. If proved to be successful, we recommend that the Government extend this assessment to all claimants, regardless of their age, so that claimants who need further skills can be identified at the earliest possible stage, and action can then be taken. (Paragraph 48)

Workplace initiatives - Unionlearn

9.  The Government is cutting £2.5 million from Unionlearn's budget, even though the Minister himself acknowledged the impressive work that the organisation does in adult skills training. This is short-sighted financial gain, which goes against the many positive interventions by the Government. It also sends out the wrong signal about the Government's commitment to adult learning. At a cost of under £100 per learner, and bringing in an extra £4 to £6 additional employer funding for every £1 of Government funding, Unionlearn is a cost-effective way of reaching large numbers of learners with the most acute English and maths needs. This is an area of high impact, which offers value for money, so we urge the Government to reverse its decision to cut Unionlearn's funding. (Paragraph 51)

Workplace initiatives - The Army

10.  The Army's provision of literacy and numeracy is to be highly commended, and it has a good record of delivery. Although their military training might not always translate into other organisations, their approach to adult literacy and numeracy, embedded within functional skills, and contextualised to make it relevant to the learners' lives, has been shown to be extremely successful, with tangible benefits for Army personnel. The Government should acknowledge the fact that a significant part of this success is the fact that the Army delivers training under Central Skills Funding Agency-Army funding arrangements, which means that the Army can organise its own contracted external literacy and numeracy provision. We recommend that the Government study the Army's methods, and promotes examples of best practice in other Government-funded initiatives. (Paragraph 54)

Other examples of adult learning programmes in specific contexts - Prisons

11.  Partnership working with prisoners, and the offering of more relevant, functional courses, in which English and maths skills are embedded, has a record of success. There is a problem with the separation of the education and training provision from the prison system itself. There is also a lack of clarity on the accountability for the quality of English and maths provision within the prison. This needs to be spelt out to providers and to Governors. (Paragraph 61)

12.  There may not be enough hours of literacy and numeracy classes to raise prisoners' reading, writing and maths to a reasonable standard, especially if those prisoners have short sentences. The courses need to be flexible enough to ensure that prisoners take their accredited hours of literacy and numeracy work with them, and, much like the pupil premium, the funding of the prisoner should be portable and should accompany the prisoner. (Paragraph 62)

13.  All prison libraries should be open over the weekend, to ensure that prisoners have greater access to prison libraries. We would also like reassurance from the Government that improved literacy supports rehabilitation, and that the Government is doing as much as possible to encourage this. (Paragraph 63)

Other examples of adult learning programmes in specific contexts - Homeless men and women

14.  We recognise the fact that homeless people face huge challenges, and welcome the STRIVE pilot, proposed by St Mungo's Broadway and Crisis, and funded by the Government. This is a long-term project which should not be hindered by the political timetable of elections. We look to all three major political parties to commit publicly to the STRIVE programme so that long-term planning can take place beyond the 2015 General Election. Furthermore, if the pilot is shown to be successful, we recommend that the pilot is adopted nationwide. In its response, the Government should give an indication of how the pilot is progressing, and the timescale for extending the scheme to other parts of the country, as there is a clear need for adult literacy and numeracy schemes in homeless hostels throughout the country. (Paragraph 68)

Community learning initiatives

15.  The Skills Funding Agency's bidding process means that demonstrably successful providers of courses have to go through the process of rebidding, which leads to insecurity of both the learners and staff providing those courses. BIS needs to re-examine this arrangement, to ensure that there is continuity for both providers with a proven record of success, and recipients of the adult learning courses. Schools do not have this insecurity; neither should providers of adult courses. (Paragraph 73)

Family-learning initiatives

16.  Family learning provision must be at the heart of schools and community centres, so that learning is rooted within communities, especially those that are disadvantaged. However, the evidence we received, including that from the Government, showed that despite overwhelming support for family-learning schemes, they are hampered by a lack of long-term, consistent funding. We recommend that the Government must commit to the long-term funding of family-learning schemes, and must set out in its response how this funding will be provided. (Paragraph 80)

Collaboration between Departments

17.  The personal commitment of the former Minister, Matthew Hancock MP, to addressing adult literacy and numeracy was commendable, and his Ministerial roles in both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department for Education (DfE) underpinned the close collaboration between the two Departments. We hope that the present Minister, Nick Boles MP, meets the high standards set by his predecessor, and continues the close collaboration in his role as Minister of State for Skills and Equalities, working jointly across BIS and DfE. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), the Ministry of Justice, and indeed the Ministry of Defence, also have a crucial role to play in developing and implementing adult literacy and numeracy policies and programmes. However, those departments appear less able to collaborate on a suitable level. In its Response, we look to the Department to set out how it will achieve closer collaboration from these Departments. We recommend that a civil servant in each of the relevant Departments is chosen to act as a champion for adult literacy and numeracy. Should close collaboration between these Departments not be delivered, we recommend that the Minister be given more formal powers to intervene in those Departments on matters of adult literacy and numeracy. (Paragraph 83)

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Prepared 8 September 2014