All I want for Christmas is… a target (for English and maths)

Any preconceived idea that adult literacy and numeracy in the UK was a source of pride will have been seriously questioned over the past year. Harvey Young examines how a nation might improve its English and maths.

This has been a year of turmoil for
education. You might argue that the upheaval has been no more marked than in previous years.

But there’s no doubt that the results of previous years’ policies — or lack of them — have come back to haunt us in the last 12 months, whether it’s the Richard Review, Perkins or the PISA international rankings.

For me, one of the most disappointing figures to come out of the plethora of research and reports that rained down on the sector was revealed in last month’s FE & Skills: Learner Participation, Outcomes and Level of Highest Qualification Held, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Skills Funding Agency.

The report tells us that there is a disturbing 3 per cent drop in the number of adults studying English and maths, even though these courses are fully government-funded.

David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said: “This should set alarm bells ringing, given England’s relatively poor literacy and numeracy levels in comparison with our economic competitors.”

So why is there a drop in the numbers? Well, I fear it’s largely down to lack of political will. There are no targets for colleges or training providers in England to raise literacy and numeracy levels among adults.

There are no targets for colleges or training providers in England to raise literacy and numeracy levels among adults

We may deny it, but when the government sets targets, our sector — like so many others — jumps. The prime example of this is in apprenticeships. Look at how they have blossomed and grown. Few would dispute that this is in no small part because colleges and training providers have government-set targets to achieve.

I don’t know why the government has not decided to encourage the FE sector to grasp this particular nettle. Or has the issue simply been overlooked? Perhaps, but it’s a big thing to overlook.

I’ve heard schools blamed for the national ‘embarrassment’ over basic skills. “If schools did their jobs properly, we wouldn’t have to play catch-up with the adults,” say some in FE.

But this is a national issue that should not be laid at schools’ doors. It is a crisis that calls for a cross-sector response.

Mr Hughes rightly points out the economic risks in having an illiterate and innumerate workforce, but what about the equally serious social repercussions of a skills deficit among our young people?

Poor educational attainment is cyclical. Many adults are not fully functioning members of society simply because of their low levels of literacy and numeracy. They’re locked out of employment, and those in work miss out on promotion. They’re forced to live on the breadline or below it. And, crucially, if school was a ‘waste of time’ for them, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to support their children’s learning, a key factor in educational attainment.

Hope was high on the agenda last year. The London Olympics was badged as ‘inspiration for a generation’, but adults who are given a second chance at English and maths can inspire generations to come — their children, and their children’s children.

If colleges and training providers aren’t given targets for adults learning in English and maths, it seems inevitable that participation levels will continue to drop. As funding gets harder to come by (and it will, if demand is seen to diminish) the outlook will be bleak for thousands.

So, when you’re writing your greeting cards, calculating how long the turkey needs in the oven, or deciding whether or to laugh or groan as you read out the Christmas cracker jokes, spare a thought for the thousands of adults who will struggle with any of these seasonal rituals.

They deserve better.


Harvey Young, director, NCCSkills


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  1. Great article on a critical issue for our society. I have always wanted at the very least a measure of local participation in learning and for achievement amongst the adult population. Something for the emerging Local Enterprise Partnerships, perhaps, to take on in the new year? Setting a measure would then allow scrutiny by NIACE and others and something to hold LEPs to account for and then lead to action to address inequalities within areas and between areas.

  2. Country Bumpkin

    I agree with the sentiment but targets alone aren’t really the answer. I suspect the rise of apprenticeships is more to do with them being lucrative and targets were a sideshow. (look at the margins on subcontracting arrangements for example)

    Funding for English and maths is pitiful, funding rate erosion and programme weighting cuts have cut funding massively with more to come by way of the 20% achievement element (see national averages for English and maths). £724 for a fuctional skill – These aren’t full time learners worth £000s, they tend to be hard to reach learners with multiple and often complex needs, the adminstration alone takes a fair chunk of that.

    What do we think the average class size should be for English / maths? Anyone looked at the national averages for these? (appalling), what effect will ‘managing down’ non-regulated learning aims in ASB have on these averages? – The 20% achievement element in the ASB funding method isn’t going to generate much… It’s likely lead to providers just cherry picking learners ‘nearer’ to achieving and turning away others, reducing participation further.

    This isn’t being thought through properly. The gulf is widening.

    At least relax learning support rules a little to allow providers to paper over the cracks… (but unfortunately waste more money shuffling paper)