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Long-term strategy on adult skills needs political will … and this has been lacking

MPs call for new campaign on literacy and numeracy. jjpacres, CC BY-NC-ND

With England once again in the spotlight for having poor adult skills, it’s timely that we have a new report from MPs calling for a campaign to fix the problem. But while there is lots of evidence out there on what needs to be done, there is a lack of real commitment from government on a long-term strategy to address the adult skills gap.

Once one of the most marginal areas of the post-school educational world, adult literacy and numeracy has moved to centre stage internationally with the creation of league tables of achievement from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The latest of its surveys, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) was released in October 2013. England’s relatively poor performance prompted the parliamentary enquiry on which this new report from the business, innovation and skills select committee is based.

A basic right

The recommendations in this cross-party report are sensible and welcome, and call for a new campaign on adult skills. The emphasis on literacy and numeracy as basic rights that should be freely supported is a refreshing change from the language of the dubious “human capital theory of literacy”. This has been in the ascendancy for many years now, based on a belief that increased literacy skills have a straightforward economic pay-off. As I will go on to explain, this has not been that easy to prove.

The MPs’ report calls for further support for the workplace programme of the Union Learning fund and a return to the creative publicity campaigns that the UK has pioneered ever since Bob Hoskins starred in adult education series On the Move in the 1970s.

In their report, the MPs emphasise the synergies of adult and child literacy through family learning programmes instead of treating them as competing sectors. They also recognise the value of flexible access routes for adults and informal starting points for learning, both of which are well supported by evidence.

They re-emphasise the importance of collaboration across government departments and with charities and other third sector organisations who are already developing powerful partnerships like the new Read On-Get On campaign, to get all children reading well by 11-years-old.

Next step after ‘Skills for Life’

We’ve been here before. Skills for Life (funded by the previous New Labour administration to the tune of £5 billion between 2001 and 2007) was the first ever serious attempt in the UK to address adult literacy, numeracy and English for speakers of other languages. It set up a high-profile media campaign featuring the Gremlins, introduced professional qualifications for adult literacy and numeracy teachers, a core curriculum, standards and a national test.

The strategy was founded on the belief that increased literacy skills have an economic pay-off for individuals – and for the country as a whole. But it has been hard to establish the effects of this investment of public funds, especially in the short-term.

Some hard evidence does come from the PIAAC findings. Although they show there is still an urgent problem for many people, they also indicate significant improvement compared to earlier survey results in the 1990s. The UK has edged up to the OECD average for literacy.

What has not improved are the inequalities in achievement across the UK population, despite more people entering higher education than ever before. England is one of the most divided nations in Europe with even graduates showing huge variability in assessed basic skills, according to new indicators released by the OECD.

The PIAAC findings received a muted response in the UK media. The Coalition government responded not with a practical policy but by setting up this enquiry and by announcing a £2.9m research initiative with the Behavioural Insights unit to discover “what works” in adult literacy and numeracy.

We know what works

In fact we already know a lot about what works. At the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre our work has emphasised the role of the cultural and social environment in supporting reading and writing development. We were part of a national consortium that applied the efforts and talents of academics across the country to produce a seminal body of research and reports between 2001 and 2008.

Nevertheless the enquiries set in motion by PIAAC have renewed a sense of urgency about adult literacy and numeracy after a period in which the infrastructure set up by the Skills for Life strategy has begun to dissolve. Funding for adult participation in college courses has been cut back by £460m as part of more general austerity measures and compulsory professional qualifications for literacy and numeracy teachers have been removed.

There is no lack of academic and practical knowledge about how to address the literacy and numeracy needs of the adult population. By comparison, the political will to invest and persist in the longer-term in this area is much more fragile, especially in times of austerity.

Jobs are becoming harder to come by for low-skilled adults and the demands of communication are continuing to change and grow across our lifespans. We need to adjust our national sights beyond school to understand that the fates of the next generations are bound up with family and community cultures, opportunities in the workplace and our willingness to take adult learning seriously.

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