From education to employment

The future of adult skills

CfBT Education Trust’s major new review of the current state of adult basic skills provision in the UK and internationally has highlighted what works and why, and how good provision contributes to the economic well-being of individuals and their families.  CfBT commissioned the National Foundation for Education Research to review and summarise research findings, with the purpose of informing improvements in the teaching and learning of adult basic skills.

Research found that improvements in learners’ literacy and numeracy, led to improved self-confidence, self-esteem and personal capacity to effect change in their lives.  The job satisfaction, capability and productivity of those in work improved.   Learners’ family relationships improved, as did their relations with their children’s teachers.  In an encouraging finding in respect of the Big Society, socially isolated learners became less so, and learners became more confident in taking up volunteering opportunities.

Teaching and learning approaches

The research demonstrates what teaching staff increasingly practice: tailoring the English and maths taught to the specific needs of individuals is effective. These needs might be related to their work, another course of study or their home.

When English and maths teaching is embedded in other courses, people tend to learn better.   For example, when apprentices on plumbing, carpentry, catering or care courses are taught the English or maths they need for those courses, they tend to make better progress in their vocational course as well as in English and maths.   The teaching challenge is for the vocational skills trainers and the literacy and numeracy specialists to work together to plan the curriculum.

Similarly, evidence suggests that it is beneficial to link literacy and numeracy tuition with other education and support provision, for example, support in job-seeking skills, introductory IT or financial management courses.

Relevance is generally motivating.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, if courses do not explicitly have relevance to adult learners’ lives, they can quickly lose interest.  Research suggests there are two elements to this.  Firstly, materials on the course need to link explicitly to life or workplace situations so that individuals can apply them and the skills do not remain abstract.  Secondly, practitioners need to be flexible and skilled at adapting course materials/structures to ensure they meet the need or interests of each particular group of learners.

Personal and Teaching skills

The personal as well as the teaching skills of the teacher are particularly important in foundation or “basic skills” teaching.  A significant proportion of learners had poor experiences at school and teachers need good interpersonal skills to create the all-important supportive and non-threatening atmosphere.  The teacher’s ability to develop positive and trusting relations with learners is essential.

Research also highlights the importance of what is now standard practice: personalised learning plans based on effective initial assessment. Review findings are more mixed in respect of qualifications; though motivating for many, some teachers tend to set their course round the qualifications, or “teach to the test” rather than according to individuals’ learning needs.

Learning and work

Two-thirds of learners who were in work reported that they were more confident at work, and their job satisfaction had improved.   Some employers reported increased productivity, but improvements in workforce relations is the key impact for employers as a result of their employees’ enhanced basic skills. Managers became more supportive of their employees as a result of seeing the benefits of their increased confidence at work. There is some evidence of increased loyalty and employee retention rates, and enhanced workforce stability.

Impacts for Families

Learners felt better able to help their children with their school homework, especially literacy work and reading with their children.  They became more confident in discussing their child’s progress with teachers, and became more involved in their children’s school, leading to better home-school relations.

Researchers also found that adult basic skills learning has a positive impact on family relationships, including a positive effect on parental behaviour and attitudes, with advantageous impacts for children.

Big Society

Improving literacy and numeracy appears to have wider social benefits: research showed that benefits reported by learners include an increase in “getting out of the house more.” However, learners’ improved confidence went beyond this personal reduction in social isolation; learners gained confidence to take up volunteering opportunities and engage in society.

Richard Goss is head of learning and skills at the CfBT Education Trust

The book, Adult basic skills, is published by CfBT Education Trust, and is available free of charge from its website

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