Alex Stevenson, Head of English, Maths & ESOL at Learning & Work Institute

It is twenty years since the publication of A Fresh Start, Sir Claus Moser’s report on adult basic skills.

In case you weren’t there at the time, this landmark report highlighted a stark national challenge of poor adult literacy and numeracy, and set out recommendations for action to ‘eradicate’ low basic skills.

Twenty years on, and the numbers unfortunately haven’t changed much. Recent surveys estimate that nine million adults have poor basic skills.

While not everyone agrees with this number, there is a wide consensus that far too many adults are held back by low literacy and numeracy skills.

The Moser report sparked the national Skills for Life strategy, which until 2010 brought a welcome focus in policy and practice on adult basic skills. It developed, for the first time, a national basic skills ‘infrastructure’, such as literacy and numeracy standards, teacher training, curricula and qualifications. The strategy also succeeded in raising awareness of the issue of poor basic skills, through high profile campaigns, and delivered millions of qualifications in literacy and numeracy.

Progress has been made

The 20th anniversary seems an appropriate point to reflect on the progress made. Recently, Learning and Work Institute convened a roundtable with its patron HRH The Princess Royal, and basic skills policymakers, researchers, practitioners and learners to discuss today’s landscape, and to help identify ‘what works’ in adult basic skills.

Whilst is has been argued that the Skills for Life strategy, encouraged by national targets, focused on the ‘low hanging fruit’, it is important to remember that many adults were engaged and supported back into learning for the first time.

Thousands of people learnt new skills – with particular success in literacy, less so in numeracy – and were able to progress to further learning, to benefit from new opportunities at work, or to feel more confident to help with their children’s homework.

So where are we now?

Many of our participants in the roundtable noted a sense of déjà vu. As mentioned, the numbers haven’t changed much. Most concerningly, the number of adults participating in basic skills English and maths provision has fallen by around 40%, from 1,083,000 in 2011/12 to 664,200 in 2017/18.

Compounding that, in the two decades since Moser, basic digital skills have become so much more important. Around 11 million adults find it difficult to complete simple digital tasks, such as paying a bill online. As public services and information are increasingly ‘digital by default’, and require both reading and digital skills, this potentially presents a ‘double whammy’ of exclusion for those with poor basic skills.

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5 areas government should focus on for a renewed, higher national ambition for adult basic skills

L&W’s roundtable contributors were asked to identify their own ‘Moser recommendations’ to address the current basic skills challenge.

In summary, we identified five things the government should be taking forward as part of a renewed, higher national ambition for adult basic skills:

  1. More investment. Learning and Work Institute has argued for an additional investment of £200m per year, to ensure that all adults have the basic skills they need, by 2030.
  2. More outreach. As one international participant pointed out, our practice in community delivery and family learning settings used to be well-regarded across Europe as best practice. Much of this has now gone as budgets have been cut. Increased investment should therefore be used, in part, to ensure that providers can afford the additional costs of off-site and community-based delivery.
  3. Better awareness of poor basic skills. A new national campaign, to get everyone talking about basic skills, reduce the stigma attached to poor literacy, and to talk up the benefits of good literacy, numeracy and digital skills. This should provide positive ‘hooks’ into learning, that are relevant to people’s lives.
  4. Better basic skills screening. There’s a need for better, simple tools to identify basic skills needs – that can be used by non-specialist intermediaries in Jobcentres, community centres, children’s centres, libraries and workplaces, or accessed by individuals themselves, to encourage participation.
  5. More involvement of employers. Employers should be supported to identify basic skills gaps in the workplace. Providers are well placed to do this, but they too need better support to engage with employers more effectively, developing business solutions rather than a take-it-or-leave-it qualifications-based offer.

Participants also highlighted the role of learning technologies in helping more adults to improve their skills, and the need for ongoing support for workforce development. As HRH The Princess Royal noted in her address, “the key to this is still about people”.

This point was highlighted most effectively by Festival of Learning ambassadors Stuart, Karen and Chua, who shared their personal testimonies to the transformational impact of improving their basic skills.

Alex Stevenson, Head of English, Maths & ESOL at Learning & Work Institute

If you know any adults that have transformed their lives through basic skills, nominate them for a Festival of Learning award. Nominations for the 2020 campaign are open from Thursday 7 November to Tuesday 11 February.

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