From education to employment

Britain’s ticking time bomb of poor literacy and numeracy

Stephen Evans is deputy chief executive of the Learning & Work Institute
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Most of us take for granted being able to understand the instructions with our medicine or check our change in the shop.

Yet shocking statistics from the OECD show that 9 million adults lack functional literacy, numeracy or both. These are fundamental basics for being full participants in society, and for future economic growth. It’s time this was recognised for the national disgrace it is, and for a national consensus to end it once and for all.

Many will find it hard to believe that 9 million fellow citizens lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. But the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills asked a representative sample of people in a number of countries to take a test. And the results show the scale of the challenge, and how it is set to get worse unless we act decisively.

The headlines were grabbed by the startling statistic that one in ten university students lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills. But the challenge is more profound.

My edited highlights would be:

1. The school system must do better

Young people in England (which the research focused on) are average by OECD standards at literacy and below average at numeracy. This reflects both a higher proportion of young people gaining qualifications in other countries, and that qualifications in England are no guarantor for having good basic English and Maths.

We must do better than this. It is not overly ambitious to say that every young person should have these core basics. Successive governments have argued that previous administrations failed to build the basics into schooling and qualifications, but their latest reforms would. This government is no different. We must hold their feet to the fire in ensuring that good rhetoric is transformed into good practice.

2. Transitions into the labour market must work better

In most countries young people have better literacy and numeracy skills than older people. England and the USA are the only two participating countries where this is not the case. So the risk is that we slip even further down the international league table. This driven in part by lower participation in education post 16. But 30% of young people with GCSEs or NVQ2 have low basic skills. This is worse than for other countries upper secondary qualification equivalents.

It is vital that all routes from compulsory education include core literacy and numeracy. This includes Apprenticeships where the Government has an admirable target of 3 million by 2020. This will only be of benefit to individuals and employers if Apprenticeships impart genuine improvements in skills. The Learning & Work Institute (L&W) has argued that an Apprentice Charter and focus on outcomes could help to drive this. The same must be true of the new Youth Obligation for young people out of work: they need the basics in order to build a career.

3. We must redouble our efforts to help adults and work with employers

90% of our 2025 workforce have already left the education system. To help adults, we need to invest more: across England around £230m was spent last year on literacy and numeracy, but the scale of the challenge means cities and local areas should prioritise a greater proportion of the Adult Education Budget, as well as ensuring literacy and numeracy are built into other qualifications. Half of adults lacking basic skills are out of work, we need to build skills improvements into the welfare system. But around 4 million are in work, yet employers report only 1.5 million workers lack the skills to do their jobs. We need to work with employers to boost productivity and raise our sights.

We should also invest better: L&W have developed the Citizens’ Curriculum, an integrated programme of study approach covering literacy, numeracy, digital, health, finance and citizenship. Early results show increased engagement from learners and savings to public services, such as reduced emergency services call outs and increased engagement with public health services. We would like flexibility for this approach to be delivered, and for cities and local areas to build it into their commissioning plans.

It is depressing that this article could have been written at any point in recent decades: there is much to commend in policy and delivery, but we remain far behind many comparator countries. But I hope that despair will be replaced by determination. Determination to do better and redouble our efforts so that everyone at every stage in their life has the chance to gain the basics they need.

The good news is that we know the scale of our national problem. The challenge now is to act, and act decisively, to make it our national mission that all citizens have the skills they need for life and work.

Stephen Evans is deputy chief executive of the Learning & Work Institute

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