The funding, teaching and organisation of adult literacy and numeracy programmes are in need of government action, says Adrian Bailey.

Problems with reading, writing and maths can have a huge impact on people’s daily lives, including getting and keeping a job, understanding bills, forms and documents, and guiding children through education. It can affect adults in many walks of life, but it also undermines the economic performance of our country.

Much of the paid-for provision is just not good enough — many English and
maths providers need to improve their standard of teaching

It is a scandal that there continues to be an alarmingly high proportion of adults with low literacy and numeracy skills. A survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in October 2013 — based on interviews with 166,000 people in 24 countries — found that England and Northern Ireland was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. This shocking state of affairs was the impetus for my committee to undertake an inquiry into how to tackle this problem.

We found that adults struggling most at English and maths are just not getting the help and support needed. To this end, our report calls on the government to launch a high-profile campaign promote its funding for training and tuition for any adult wanting to study English and maths up to and including GSCE level. This campaign should also help adults in finding the most appropriate and nearest help, with either voluntary schemes or more formal classes.

During our inquiry, we heard of many excellent examples of literacy and numeracy programmes in a variety of settings, from workplaces, community centres, schools and prisons, to those organised by homeless charities.

We heard about the fantastic role that volunteers are taking in providing adult learning schemes.

However, we also found from Ofsted that much of the paid-for provision is just not good enough — many English and maths providers need to improve their standard
of teaching.

Post-graduate qualifications should be reintroduced, to reinforce the fact that adult learning is a specialist job, and to ensure that the best teachers are helping adults to improve their English and maths.

Our report also recommends that the government takes a more flexible approach to adult learning, getting behind what works — both in terms of the funding and the learning offered.

The government should move away from its preoccupation with GCSEs as the ‘gold standard’ of measurement for adult skills and, where appropriate, provide more support for less linear and traditional learning schemes, which are often more effective in engaging adults and improving their literacy and numeracy.

Adult learning can play a vital role in helping people escape the trap of low-skilled jobs or unemployment, yet the committee found there was little rigorous or uniform assessment in place for when adults claim unemployment benefit — despite the fact that this is an ideal opportunity to help adults to gain essential skills needed to get a job.

Again, this is an area where more a coherent government approach is needed. The Department for Work and Pensions, BIS, and Jobcentre Plus and skills providers all need to work closely to ensure there is consistent and thorough assessment of skills at the earliest possible stage of unemployment benefit claims.

Government departments must work together to drive change. Many have adult literacy and numeracy included in their remits, but my committee found that closer collaboration is needed.

In order to deliver more coordinated and effective support for literacy and numeracy programmes and policies, we have called on the government to make sure each relevant department nominates a civil servant to act as a champion for adult literacy and numeracy.

The video we have produced to accompany the report includes a summary of our findings and the committee’s recommendations, but I hope it also acts as a showcase for the positive impact which effective learning can have on individuals’ literacy and numeracy skills.

The government’s positive initial reaction to our report is encouraging and while there is no silver bullet to this problem, if they adopt our recommendations, the government can make a real difference to people’s lives and our economy’s productivity.