Charlotte Bosworth, Director of Skills and Employment at exam board OCR, welcomes the recommendations of a new report into adult literacy and numeracy and urges the uptake of more flexible learning options to support adult learners.

I read with interest the recent report from the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee which focussed on the alarmingly low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England.

Currently ranking at 22nd in a list of 24 OECD countries for literacy and 21st for numeracy is not a position that reflects well on the education outcomes of a prosperous, well-funded and globally influential nation. The Committee has made a number of recommendations including the urgent need for a high-profile campaign to tackle this worrying situation, alongside the development of a more 'joined-up approach' from Government in order to respond more strategically, and with more urgency, to the need for rapid improvement. Central to the proposed reforms is the very real need for improved funding arrangements, better assessments and resource to support the literacy and numeracy needs of unemployed people.

Furthermore, it is in efforts to underpin the educational aspirations of this community that the real focus should be made. Many older learners, for various reasons, may need to reassess their current skills and attractiveness to employers, but in many cases are barred from doing so due to a failing system. They could well have experienced redundancy after a life-long career in which they have obtained and displayed a range of manual skills, but now realise that the feasibility of re-entering the workplace via alternative employment requires a re-appraisal of their current skill base and the attainment of new proficiencies often grounded in literacy and numeracy.

Moreover, it is a reality for many that early learning experiences of the traditional O Level (now GCSE) qualifications were problematic and did not equip them with, for example, the required literacy and numeracy exam grades. In this sense OCR has, for many years, argued that GCSEs should not be relied upon as the only option for measuring and motivating adults with literacy or numeracy issues. I am pleased that BIS Select Committee appears to be in agreement with this point of view.

We believe that while the standards of the GCSE are of course an important measure of academic attainment and achievement, there should also be flexibility in how older learners re-engage with the learning process in a way that plays to their strengths and encourages confidence, rather than focussing on their weaknesses. Our experience is that those who have failed to gain English and maths skills at school – often many years ago – can make far more progress with an alternative approach which leans on incremental, bite-sized learning structures that engage and reward, with the overall effect of raising confidence in the learner's ability, whilst preparing them for the workplace, rather than the classroom. Simply exposing adult learners to traditional methods inherent in the GCSE approach will more often than not produce the same results: if they struggled previously, it is likely that they will do so again.

In helping to prepare and equip learners for a return to employment, a dedicated pool of functionally and vocationally based resource must be supported and offered as an alternative method of skill attainment. Coupled with experienced training providers, we can then start to make inroads into the real, and serious problems that a significant number of adults are encountering when it comes to developing reading, writing and maths skills, and which have a huge impact on their daily lives – including securing and retaining employment.

OCR has already made great headway in this field, offering tailored packages for adult learners including Cambridge Progression, which focusses on core English and maths skills, as well as our Functional Skills courses, which provides further practical training in English, maths and ICT, equipping learners with transferrable skills which can be applied to everyday life and the workplace.

Releasing the untapped potential of adult learners in a more flexible way not only enhances their own prospects and makes them more attractive to employers, it also makes good economic sense as a swath of potential recruits will be able to make a contribution to the future fiscal wellbeing of the country.

To conclude, then, adult learning can play a central role in helping people escape the what can be a vicious circle of low-skilled jobs or employment, or at worst, unemployment. We are heartened to see the BIS Committee call for the closer integration of key stakeholders such as the Department for Work and Pensions, BIS, Job Centre Plus and skills providers to work more closely together for better outcomes in this area. Together with a more flexible approach to learning provision, we hope that we can finally start to have a real impact on the alarming adult literacy and numeracy levels and begin to move England up the OECD league tables from a current position that, quite frankly, should serve as an embarrassment to us all.

Charlotte Bosworth is director for skills and employment at OCR, the awarding body

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