Adults need a different approach to English and maths than the one that failed them

The current model is sacrificing the skills they need in the name of the qualifications we want them to have

The current model is sacrificing the skills they need in the name of the qualifications we want them to have

28 Nov 2023, 5:00

Last week, I was at the Association of Colleges conference, where I attended a breakout session called ‘English and maths, the elephant in every room’. For me, having spent almost 30 years working in the adult education sector, the real elephant in the room is the lack of investment or priority given to those adults in the community who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Don’t get me wrong. It was heartening to hear the government’s commitment and investment in English and maths education, including the perceived benefits of the Advanced British Standard. We were told that 64 per cent of young people who don’t achieve good English and maths grades at 16 go on to achieve them by the age of 19. That is truly remarkable and clearly the policy drive to see all students study English and maths to 18 is working.

And yet. What about the 36 per cent who become adults still having not achieved good grades in these vital subjects? Eight million adults in the UK have maths skills lower than those expected of an eleven-year-old, meaning lots of rewarding and high-level jobs will likely never be available to them. These are the adults who come to institutions like mine to improve their skills, yet there has been no funding increase for adults over 19 requiring English and maths for 10 years.

Adult participation in English and maths is declining nationally but the need is not. What is stopping adults from gaining these essential (functional) skills? We know that addressing the numeracy and literacy needs of adults is a multifaceted investment that pays off in terms of individual wellbeing, economic development, social cohesion, addressing inequality and overall national progress. So why is there a lack of investment?

Adults who have been through the school system and perhaps two years of college without achieving a ‘relevant qualification’ deserve a different kind of intervention. It is possible a sizeable proportion of adults who lack essential English and maths skills have an undiagnosed learning difficulty and disability. Other factors that contribute to low literacy and numeracy may be socioeconomic or health-related.

There has been no funding increase for 10 years

Meanwhile, at a time when participation in ESOL is growing exponentially, have we considered that adult learners with an ESOL need may not be lacking in numeracy skills? Language barriers are hindering the development of literacy and numeracy skills, yet no focus or priority has been given to the appropriateness of maths education for people for whom English is not the first language. 

Measuring the achievement or competence of adults against a qualification framework may be where our problem lies. If what adults truly need is functional maths and English, why do we measure their success through the lens of an outmoded assessment model?  

For example, I had a learner in my level 1 functional skills maths class who was elated that she could help her son with his primary school maths homework without feeling inadequate. Incidentally she did not pass her exam and is part of the national statistic, but in her eyes she had succeeded. I am sure across the country every college and adult community education learning organisation will be able to give an array of examples of learner successes that are not related to passing an exam.

The flexibility of Multiply funding is helping to address some of these issues in maths teaching. Colleges are effectively using Multiply to bridge the rigidity of the maths curriculum by recognising the diverse reasons adults may have low numeracy. Only time will tell if these tailored and flexible approaches to adult education will deliver the sort of measurable results politicians look for when making funding decisions.

What’s certain is that further investment is needed right now for adults lacking basic skills. They are today’s workforce and today’s parents. Improving their numeracy and literacy skills will not only enhance overall productivity and economic competitiveness in the short term but enable them to more fully participate in activities with plenty of medium- and long-term benefits too.

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  1. John Terence Jones

    If you look at West Midlands there is no Adult Skills in Literacy , Numeracy, Basic IT and ESOL except The Adult Education provision run by Councils. No ITPs have this provision so no learners from the community are able to do these courses. The WMCA have a lot to answer for and an investigation should be carried out at this lack of provision .