The government, schools, trade unions, parents and carers all need to work together in a new drive to improve numeracy and literacy skills, says Barry Brooks.

t is a pity that, given all the words that have been written about English and maths skills since the publication of the OECD Report on Adult Skills, the very people being spoken about or represented in the various graphs and tables will not have been able to read the text or understand the statistics.

It is also somewhat ironic that at a time when the government has set out a coherent, holistic set of policies to address these recognised weaknesses, these ambitions have been overshadowed by the report’s findings.

For me, as I am sure for many of you, the recent debate in the House of Commons on adult literacy and numeracy was one of those déjà vu moments we so often experience with education and skills policies.

This time I relived almost identical sessions triggered in 1999 by “A Fresh Start”, Lord Moser’s Report on improving adult literacy and numeracy.

The main difference this time was that the debate was happening against a backdrop of cross-party consensus.

We have all known for some time that there is a continuous stream of young people leaving the compulsory school sector at age 16 without capability and competence in English and maths.

The percentage has remained at or around 40 per cent for over a decade.

Much of the progress has slowed down, not least because funding available to raise the quality and qualifications of teachers for these subjects has all but disappeared.”

We are also aware the vast majority of these young people have not sought to continue their GCSE studies when they enter the education and skills sector and have avoided resits wherever possible.

We also know from the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education’s (Niace) reviews on adult literacy and numeracy that much of the progress has slowed down, not least because funding available to raise the quality and qualifications of teachers for these subjects has all but disappeared.

The evidence was reinforced by the 2011 Skills for Life Survey, which confirmed that while progress had been made at levels one and two in literacy, numeracy progress continued to lag behind and those with the lowest levels of skills showed little or no improvement.

For me, though, the most telling evidence will emerge when the report on the Distanced Travelled or Skills Gain Pilot is published later this year.

The pilot was designed to explore whether a shift away from focusing and funding performance, as measured by qualification success, could be replaced by a more scientific approach to measuring, recording and reporting on progress — hence skills gained and progress made.

What the evaluators found was how far many providers had moved away from the teaching and learning infrastructure developed and funded by the Skills for Life Strategy.

Centres participating in the pilot had developed their own unique approach to improving English and maths and as a consequence there was no consistent, coherent or universal approach to initial assessment, diagnostic assessment or individual learning plans.

In reality, the only remaining legacy of the strategy appeared to be a focus, wherever possible, on securing the qualifications.

The results in the OECD report appear to be most disappointing for the 16 to 24 age group and I fear the FE sector is going to take the brunt of the growing criticism.

At least in the House of Commons debate, Matthew Hancock had the courage and insight to address this directly, by suggesting schools have an important role in stemming the flow of young people leaving school without GCSE A* to C in English.

An enormous stock of young people has already passed through the school system and once again the sector is expected to address the disappointment and shortcomings of those who do not possess A* to C in English and maths.

Many of this year’s intake, unlike their predecessors, will also arrive in the autumn to find a GCSE re-take is a mandatory part of their study programme.

Providers and teachers in the sector will do everything they can to encourage young people to study these subjects, not because of a political imperative or a funding mechanism, but because these skills are essential.

There is there is still enormous disquiet about the government’s solution being the GCSE”

But they need support and employers and trade unions must take more responsibility for ensuring our young people have access to information that helps them better understand these skills are more than “nice-to-haves” — they are “must-haves”.

Parents and carers will always have a role in ensuring they encourage and enable young people to have a realistic understanding of the importance of learning, but without the learners’ belief and trust in what has been done, offered or said to them, nothing can or will change.

The sector supports the need to improve English and maths and wants to make it meaningful and motivational for our young people.

But there is there is still enormous disquiet about the government’s solution being the GCSE, especially a GCSE that we are told is about to become even more “demanding, rigorous and stretching”.

Within both DfE and BIS, there is recognition that not everyone can achieve a GCSE and that is why functional skills have been created and “stepping stone” qualifications have been approved.

There is also a commitment to developing programmes where English and maths are contextualised, as this makes the learning meaningful and relevant to young people.

I understand within DfE there is work planned to see how best to align the GCSE requirements with learner expectation and motivation.

These are challenging times for the sector, as we await the outcomes of the Review of Adult Vocational Qualifications, the Consultation on Apprenticeship Funding and the Implementation Plan for the Richard Review.

One thing is certain — English and maths will remain essential whatever policies are in place and the sector will, as always, rise to these challenges and remain relentless in its commitment to improving standards and increasing opportunities.

Barry Brooks, Strategic Adviser to the Tribal Board