An MPs’ committee has been investigating whether England has been failing adults who struggle with numeracy and literacy. Paul Stanistreet looks at the committee’s findings.

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee report on adult literacy and numeracy paints a troubling picture of a society in which those who have been failed by the education system continue to miss out on opportunities to learn.

The report is critical of the current government’s approach and of its predecessors’ failure to develop a coherent strategy for adult literacy and numeracy. It calls for a national campaign to boost adult literacy and numeracy and urges government to develop a more coherent, cross-departmental approach to dealing with the UK’s dreadfully poor performance in literacy and numeracy, with better screening, and support for more flexible provision.

The report mentions the ‘inevitable impact’ of low adult skills on economic performance. This is true and important, but the impact goes deeper.

Poor skills don’t just affect people’s ability to do a job well. They hold you back at every stage and in every area of life, with consequences for your health, political participation, relationships with others and, of course, your children’s life chances.

Many of those who leave compulsory education without the basic skills necessary to function in society are reluctant to re-engage with education. And those who do often struggle to find the right kind of opportunity. For many this will not be in a traditional classroom.

Some of the government’s interventions are making a bad situation worse

The report makes sensible suggestions for dealing with these problems. There is recognition of the need for flexibility, in terms of types of programme and provider, and a call for the reversal of the recent funding reduction to unionlearn, imposed in spite of its success in engaging exactly this type of learner.

The committee also calls for more investment and promotion of family learning schemes and a move away from the ‘traditional, linear approach to achieving qualifications’, typified by the government’s obsession with the GCSE ‘gold standard’.

Some of the government’s interventions are making a bad situation worse. The cut to funding for unionlearn is an example of the short-termism of many of the policies implemented under the banner of austerity. The 35 per cent drop in the adult skills budget over the past five years is closing rather than opening up opportunities for adults to learn and making it more difficult for providers to target the hardest to reach.

The community learning budget, though maintained in cash terms, has also been reduced in real terms. At the same time, reductions in voluntary sector support make it harder to replicate on the ground the kind of cooperation the committee would like to see between government departments.

We have struggled with this issue for decades. Despite that, it is still not the case that every child leaves compulsory education with the resources they need for a decent life. Those who fared the worst in compulsory education continue to be those least likely to take up educational opportunity as adults. Many of those who are most in need of support are bearing the brunt of austerity politics, working longer hours for less pay as they struggle to provide for their families. When your day-to-day life is all about survival it is hard to get your head up and think about the future (even if, by some chance, you have heard that the government guarantees to fund adult students up to level two in maths and English).

Cuts in FE funding have made the situation worse with providers given little incentive to invest time and resources in engaging the hardest-to-reach adults rather than focusing on those more likely to complete their courses and progress. As the report notes, funding continues to be ‘driven by the need for qualifications’. Some of the committee’s recommendations, if implemented, will help — and it is difficult to argue against the need for a national campaign or for greater cross-departmental cooperation.

But it is hard to escape the feeling that some more fundamental change — involving the way we do politics and how we address wider social and economic inequalities — will be necessary too.