Everyone agrees that young people entering the world of work must be literate and numerate. But the arguments continue about the best approach to deliver English and maths to our young people. Both of these subjects are essential for employment. In fact, English and maths in the formal sense through Functional Skills qualifications are included in the Standards for the newly reformed Trailblazer apprenticeships.

“At the current rate of progress, it would take the UK over 15 years to close the literacy and numeracy gap”

The UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) research has indicated that poor literacy and numeracy is a major inhibitor holding back a person’s productivity and economic output, as well as their standard of living and their ability to be socially mobile. Intuitively, we can grasp this simple fact. It is obvious to us.

Despite numerous attempts over the last few decades to improve the situation, employers continue to voice concerns over the level of literacy and numeracy of young people entering the workforce. For the last twenty years we have been aiming to increase attainment levels. The Government is still committed to what is seen as the ‘gold’ standard of a person achieving a C grade (new 4) in both English and maths GCSE qualifications.

However, from the Department for Education's statistics, it is estimated that around 250,000 people enter the workforce each year with an inadequate level of English and maths. Against this, the Ofqual statistics indicate around 380,000 people achieve a satisfactory C grade equivalent in Functional Skills English and maths. Accordingly, there is a net improvement within the workforce of some 130,000 per annum. So what does this mean in terms of the scale of the problem?  

The former employer facing agency, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) research in 2014 suggested that around 19% of the workforce had inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy when measured against the changing demands within the economy. This equates to around 6 million people. At the current rate of progress it would take over 15 years to close the gap. This is far too long.

“I believe now is the time to challenge our conventional approach and be brave enough to radically change direction”

So what could we do? Well, we could increase Government investment and, say, triple this level to bring about the changes in the existing workforce within 5 years. As laudable as this might seem, if we were to go ahead and make this investment, would it fix the problem? Probably not, but that does not mean we should not increase investment to solve part of the problem.

As someone who at one point in my career was an operational director with 25% of my workforce either completely or partially illiterate I do not believe we will ever get to 100% of people achieving what we currently perceive as the appropriate level.

Our present strategy is to drive the vast majority of people to achieve an academic C grade (new 4) with 13 years’ learning in school or college. When they cannot achieve this, or they are already in the workforce and are completely or semi-literate or numerate, we give them around 45 hours training and hope they will be able to pass Level 2 Functional Skills English and maths examination.

In my view, this strategy will not achieve our ambition of raising literacy and numeracy levels to those of our international competitors; more help is needed to close the 30% productivity gap with other competitor countries.

The time has come to step back and radically re-think the approach.

Employers are looking for people who have a good level of practical and functional English and maths for the majority of jobs. They are not looking for people who have an academic knowledge.

So why don’t we turn our approach on its head? Let’s consider teaching practical functional English and maths as the standard for all children and young people; providing an option of a more academic GCSE course for those who see their careers in academia. For those already in the workforce, who have inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy, we should provide enhanced support and training to help them achieve a meaningful practical functional English and maths qualification.

I believe now is the time to challenge our conventional approach and be brave enough to radically change direction.

Graham Hasting-Evans, MD, NOCN

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