Adult education, Politics

Adult literacy must be top of the new PM’s despatch box

11 Sep 2022, 6:00

Changes in government policy and funding in the last decade have reversed previous positive trends, writes Robert Glick

We should acknowledge the chronic low levels of adult literacy, which ranks the UK below average in the OECD – especially since Friday was international literacy day.

Resolving this challenge offers the new prime minister a way to address one of the UK’s deep rooted problems – its chronically low productivity. 

In our increasingly complex and challenging world, a skilled and well-educated workforce is a precondition for success.

For that we really need every adult to be able to read, write and understand maths at a level that allows them to participate effectively in the workforce and in the community.

But the fact is, as many as nine million working-age adults in Britain have low basic skills in literacy or numeracy.

That figure includes some five million who are already in work.

In other words, up to 25 percent of the workforce is underprepared for the challenges of the modern economy.

And more than  20 per cent of adults lack the “life” skills needed to participate in a digital world.

Basic public services, shopping, managing personal finances, news services and entertainment are increasingly moving online.

It means that the more than a fifth of Britons who lack the skills and confidence to use an app or fill in a web form will become increasingly marginalised.

Not only are non-readers less likely to be able to contribute fully at work, they are effectively made to feel like second-class citizens by their inability to access services or relevant state support.

Their health can suffer  too, from anxiety and stress at being excluded, and from the stigma of not being a full participant in society.

We have long known what the solutions are, but they need investment in the right places. And they need it now.

Changes in government policy and falling funding in the last decade have reversed previous positive trends.

Adult participation in English, maths, and ESOL (English as a Second Language) learning has fallen 60 per cent over the last decade.

And where there are adult education courses available, fewer than two in five adults know that they exist, and that figure is likely lower for those who might benefit most from free English and maths provision.

How can we turn the tide?

The Adult Literacy Trust is a new volunteer-led initiative to support adult learners, helping them find the confidence and determination to learn.

But this and the work of other charities is a drop in the ocean compared to the need.

What is required is a properly funded adult education programme.

It should be one that is at least equivalent to Multiply, the government’s much-lauded £560 million adult numeracy programme that is funded by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

We need a properly funded adult literacy programme like Multiply

Some of that support should flow through formal further education services.

But more imaginative approaches are also required.

Partnerships with employers and employer’s associations should provide work-based learning.

More community-based programmes are needed, including family learning and partnerships with schools, providing opportunities for accessible learning locally and supporting parents to help with their children’s education.

Literacy learning support should be integrated into the work JobCentre Plus does to prepare candidates for interviews and work placements.

There are roles for volunteers to help, but they require a clear framework and plan to operate within. That is currently lacking.

Improving adult literacy education needs is the far-sighted intervention that can help solve the UK’s long-standing productivity problem, and put the country back on the pathway to growth and prosperity.

Even with relatively low levels of investment in adult skills, the government can make great progress in achieving the skilled workforce required to improve national productivity.

This will help us to get out of the trap of perennially low growth that has seen the UK fall down the economic league tables.

And while quick, emergency fixes are needed for the country’s immediate challenges, longer-term action is needed to restore international competitiveness.

Addressing deep-seated problems is something only governments can do. 

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