Levelling up will only happen if maths and English improve

12 Nov 2021, 10:39

The country is still not getting the basics right on literacy and numeracy, writes Fiona Aldridge

Getting the basics right is fundamental, but as recent research from the Learning and Work Institute shows, we are clearly not doing well enough. 

An estimated nine million working-age adults in England have low basic skills in literacy or numeracy, and five million have low skills in both, the report reveals.

Yet participation in English and maths learning has plummeted, including across every mayoral combined authority.

Surely there can be no meaningful “levelling up” unless we make inroads into this.

Here in the West Midlands, the issue is particularly acute. About one in ten adults has no qualifications at all, and 28 per cent are qualified below level 2. 

The government’s 2011 Skills for Life survey identified that about one in eight working-age adults in the region had poor literacy skills and one quarter had poor numeracy skills. 

So it is of little comfort to the combined authority that participation in English and maths has fallen less dramatically than in other regions, or that most of this reduction took place pre-devolution. 

About one in ten adults in West Midlands has no qualifications

Our ambition is to reverse this decline, and to extend opportunities to high-quality provision that will support more people to engage and to progress.

Before devolution, our English and maths was delivered by more than 400 providers, many of them based outside the region. 

There was little connection to the labour market or other local delivery, resulting in low rates of progression into work or further study. 

Although we’ve seen some further decline in participation during Covid, we are pleased that since 2019-20, more than half of our AEB enrolments have been for English, maths and ESOL provision. That’s up from about 40 per cent in previous years. 

We have also focused on ensuring that provision is better aligned to regional economic need. 

Before devolution, two-thirds of provision in the region was at level 1 or below, much of it generic, with little on offer for those in work. 

Through regional systems leadership, we have been working with providers to allow better progression into employment and further learning. 

This has involved bringing AEB and community learning providers together to work collaboratively in places with the greatest need, to deliver essential first-steps learning. 

We’ve also worked with providers to offer “SWAPs plus”, delivering English, maths and next level vocational qualifications to learners as they move into work.

It’s important too that we recognise that AEB is only part of the picture.

Considerable support for basic skills has been delivered, for example, at grassroots level through European Social Fund projects. 

The advent of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which aims to replace EU structural funds, presents an opportunity for combined authorities to co-commission new provision aligned to AEB. 

And in doing so, we must learn lessons about the importance of creating coherent progression pathways rather than funding standalone projects.

Finally, we should avoid the trap of assuming that “if we build it, they will come”.

Findings from the latest Adult Participation in Learning survey show that half of all adults are not aware they can access free courses to improve their English and maths skills. 

Others do not know where to find information about courses or appreciate how learning can help them to achieve their goals (whether that’s finding work, understanding finances, or helping children with schoolwork).

To help address this, we will shortly be launching a new adult skills and training platform for the region to make opportunities more visible, accessible and attractive for potential adult learners. 

We’re also working closely with JobcentrePlus to promote awareness and use of the platform by work coaches. 

As the chancellor said in his recent budget speech: “Our future success depends not just on the schooling we give our children but the lifelong learning we offer to adults.”

Getting the basics right is a critical element of ensuring this success – and something we are committed to achieving for the West Midlands. 

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  1. It’s time someone starting using data at a learner level to assess the numbers of ‘stuck’ learners.

    However uncomfortable it might be, a discussion around whether every individual can progress needs to be had and, dependent on the outcome, changes need to be made. Not looking beyond the basic numbers hasn’t got us anywhere, so it’s time for a different approach.

  2. Really really confused by this – totally agree with Fiona – and about time they had somebody using data to provide an insight into what is actually needed/happening on the ground but this person must be working in a total silo as everyone else the WMCA seems to hate ESOL with a passion?!