From education to employment

Skills for Life survey

A response by Carol Taylor, NIACE Director for Research and Development to the publication of the 2011 Skills for Life Survey by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills on Thursday 13 December.

It was great to see the report from the Skills for Life Survey 2011 showing an increase in those adults working at Literacy Level 2, equivalent to GCSE level, from 44 per cent in 2003 to 57 per cent in 2011. This proves that the Skills for Life Strategy, along with the huge effort of many teachers, managers, volunteers and of course learners, has had a powerful impact over the past 10 years.

However, many of the survey findings are also a cause for alarm. The report, which reviews the progress and impact of the Skills for Life strategy since 2003, concludes that 15 per cent of the adult population are currently performing at Entry Level 3 or below in Literacy. Furthermore, a massive 24 per cent of adults have Numeracy skills at Entry Level 2 or below.

Put simply, around one in six adults struggle with aspects of reading and writing; this puts them at a serious disadvantage as employees, citizens and parents.  Alongside this, almost one in four of the adult population struggle with the basics of numeracy, a skill which can have an even greater impact on life chances than literacy.

The Treasury has quite rightly shown an interest in the fact that, despite an enormous and welcome investment in skills for life over the past decade, there are still far too many people who have not been helped. Our Inquiries – into adult numeracy and adult literacy in 2011 – took a long hard look at the issues, the strategies for dealing with them and their impact. Each Inquiry produced a report, with recommendations, and NIACE is pleased that many of those recommendations have been acted upon by Government.

In these reports, we suggested that part of the problem with literacy and numeracy provision lies in qualifications being the all important target for providers, resulting in teachers being encouraged to teach to the test and ‘plucking only the low hanging fruit’ in order to meet targets. Our Inquiry into Adult Literacy made a number of recommendations which chime with the findings of the 2011 Skills for Life Survey. Most importantly, both reports stress that we must invest in ways to engage those with the poorest skills, who are usually those with low self confidence, in poor or no jobs, and have a range of other social issues; and that both literacy and numeracy must be made more relevant to people’s lives.

NIACE also believes that we are still in a situation where too many numeracy learners will find themselves being taught by an unqualified teacher. The Inquiry into adult numeracy made a set of recommendations to shape a new way forward for how we talk about numeracy and maths, how we can engage more adults in better numeracy learning, support them so they continue learning and assess them to chart their progress. These recommendations are not just about spending more money, but spending the current budget in a way that works better for adults.

Finally, we need to incentivise providers to embrace community and workplace outreach programmes like Community Learning Champions and Union Learning Reps. We also need to foster innovative working practice and curriculum design, promoting partnership across the public, private and voluntary sectors. We will be leading on this work, with a range of partners, in the new year with a new numeracy initiative – Action on Adult Maths. If more adults are supported into learning and have the opportunity to learn in a way that’s relevant to their everyday lives then the next Skills for Life Survey should have more findings to celebrate.

Carol Taylor is director of development and research at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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