‘We’ve been struggling with adult literacy and numeracy for decades’

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee report on adult literacy and numeracy paints a troubling picture of a society in which those who have been failed by the education system continue to miss out on opportunities to learn.

The report is critical of the current government’s approach and of its predecessors’ failure to develop a coherent strategy for adult literacy and numeracy. It calls for a national campaign to boost adult literacy and numeracy and urges government to develop a more coherent, cross-departmental approach to dealing with the UK’s dreadfully poor performance in literacy and numeracy, with better screening, and support for more flexible provision.

The report mentions the ‘inevitable impact’ of low adult skills on economic performance. This is true and important but the impact goes deeper. Poor skills don’t just affect people’s ability to do a job well. They hold you back at every stage and in every area of life, with consequences for your health, political participation, relationships with others and, of course, your children’s life chances. Many of those who leave compulsory education without the basic skills necessary to function in society are reluctant to re-engage with education. And those who do often struggle to find the right kind of opportunity. For many this will not be in a traditional classroom.

The report makes sensible suggestions for dealing with these problems. There is recognition of the need for flexibility, in terms of types of programme and provider, and a call for the reversal of the recent funding reduction to unionlearn, imposed in spite of its success in engaging exactly this type of learner. The committee also calls for more investment and promotion of family learning schemes and a move away from the ‘traditional, linear approach to achieving qualifications’, typified by the government’s obsession with the GCSE ‘gold standard’.

some of the government’s interventions are making a bad situation worse. The cut to funding for unionlearn is an example of the short-termism of many of the policies implemented under the banner of austerity. The 35 per cent drop in the adult skills budget over the past five years is closing rather than opening up opportunities for adults to learn and making it more difficult for providers to target the hardest to reach. The community learning budget, though maintained in cash terms, has also been reduced in real terms. At the same time, reductions in voluntary sector support make it harder to replicate on the ground the kind of cooperation the committee would like to see between government departments.

We have struggled with this issue for decades. Despite that, it is still not the case that every child leaves compulsory education with the resources they need for a decent life. Those who fared the worst in compulsory education continue to be those least likely to take up educational opportunity as adults. Many of those who are most in need of support are bearing the brunt of austerity politics, working longer hours for less pay as they struggle to provide for their families. When your day-to-day life is all about survival it is hard to get your head up and think about the future (even if, by some chance, you have heard that the government guarantees to fund adult students up to Level 2 in maths and English).

Cuts in FE funding have made the situation worse with providers given little incentive to invest time and resources in engaging the hardest-to-reach adults rather than focusing on those more likely to complete their courses and progress. As the report notes, funding continues to be ‘driven by the need for qualifications’. Some of the committee’s recommendations, if implemented, will help – and it is difficult to argue against the need for a national campaign or for greater cross-departmental cooperation. But it is hard to escape the feeling that some more fundamental change – involving the way we do politics and how we address wider social and economic inequalities – will be necessary too.

This article was first published in FE Week

‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’

Two important reports, published earlier this month, highlight both the intractable nature of poor literacy and numeracy in the UK and the increasingly polarized nature of our education system.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual Education at a Glance report, while noting what it describes as a ‘quantum leap’ in the expansion of higher education, also reports that growth in HE has not been accompanied by a rise in literacy and numeracy skills – with only a quarter of graduates reaching the highest level of literacy skills – nor has it had significant impact on social mobility.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee report on adult literacy and numeracy, published on Tuesday to the approval of many in the education sector, calls for a national campaign and greater collaboration between government departments to ‘tackle the appallingly low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England’, has been just as positive.

Both reports support a familiar analysis. As a country we lag substantially behind our international competitors. The OECD’s 2013 adult skills survey ranked England 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 developed countries and noted that many low-skilled adults were ‘trapped in a situation in which they rarely benefit from adult learning … making it even harder for these individuals to participate in learning activities’.

The facts are grim, if familiar. The committee notes the impact of poor basic skills on economic performance – true even in a country with an unusually high proportion of low-paid, low-skilled jobs. But, of course, the consequences go deeper than that. Poor basic skills are related to poor health, low levels of political participation and intergenerational poverty. Those people who leave compulsory education without the literacy and numeracy skills necessary for full participation in society have often been labeled ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ at school and are understandably reluctant – or lack the confidence – to return to formal education. They may prefer to learn at work or in the community but will, in most cases, find few opportunities to do so. Educational opportunities tend to coalesce around those who have already benefited the most from education. As Helena Kennedy once remarked, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed.’

The committee urges a reappraisal of the way in which government deals with the problem of poor adult basic skills and our failure, as a society, to offer second chances to those who have been failed by the education system first time around. It urges greater flexibility in funding and in the types of programme offered, calls for better screening and assessment of need, and recommends  a move away from the ‘traditional, linear approach to achieving qualifications’, typified by the government’s obsession with the ‘gold standard’ of GCSE in maths and English.

There is much to welcome in this. Some of these changes, if implemented, could make a significant difference. However, turning the tide will, I suspect, require a much more substantial shift in approach, not to mention a change in the way in which we do politics. The recent cut to funding for unionlearn, imposed in spite of the organisation’s success in engaging exactly this type of learner, is an example of the sort of short-termism typical of many of the policies implemented in the name of austerity. At the same time, the adult skills budget has been cut by 35 per cent over five years, while the budget for community learning, protected in cash terms, has been reduced in real terms. With funding ‘driven by the need for qualifications’ there is little incentive for stretched providers to invest time and resources in engaging the hardest-to-reach adults (who are often also those least likely to complete courses or progress). Cuts to voluntary sector funding also make it harder to identify need on the ground and establish the sort of local networks necessary in making a serious impact among the most disengaged groups.

We have been talking about these issues for years, decades. Yet children continue to leave school without the basic resources they need in life. When they get older they are likely to find they are also among those adults least likely to access educational opportunity, for a complex array of reasons, ranging from low confidence to the need to work longer hours, often for less pay, to support their families. Simply telling these people about the support available to them is unlikely to be enough.

This article was first published in Left Foot Forward

Learning, talking, thinking, dreaming: Some thoughts on International Democracy Day

Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence, the referendum has given rise to a notable resurgence in grassroots democratic activism north of the border, with a corresponding increase both in people’s intentions to vote and in the blustering resistance of those in power who see increased democratic engagement as a threat. For once, people have a sense that what they think matters.

What could have been a dry, cynical and negative campaign – and, indeed, started out that way – has been transformed by a combination of community engagement, education, social media and the bullish refusal of Scottish voters to be cowed by the intimidation of parts of the establishment – all that and a very evident passion for democracy and political debate. The result of all this is that the people of Scotland have had the debate they wanted, not the one most mainstream politicians and the media wanted them to have.

I went up to Edinburgh a year ago to hear from some of the projects adult educators had set up in response to the referendum. Frustration at the quality and integrity of debate and the prevalence of negative campaigning was obvious. It was also clear that the debate the adult students I met wanted to have was not one primarily about economics – though everyone agreed that mattered – but one about identity. They wanted to know more – the lines of partiality driving the campaigning meant reliable information was in short supply – and they also wanted spaces in which to think about the kind of Scotland they wanted. Adult educators, through projects like the Workers’ Educational Association’s Talk Scotland programme, and the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group’s series of public seminars, have been at the forefront of creating such spaces – filling a real gap and making a real difference to the quality and purpose of what has been, by and large, a remarkably civilized debate.

Time will tell whether this results in a real, long-term democratic shift in Scotland, with greater, wider political engagement from all sections of society and more power in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians and the unelected moguls, corporations and markets whose influence comes at the expense of ordinary people. Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that the grassroots debate and argument the referendum has unleashed continues, and spreads to other parts of the UK. However, if that is to happen, I think we need two things: more political education and more spaces in which to discuss things that matter to people. Adult education is key to both. But we need to think about adult education as being about more than preparing people for work – and find ways to realise its contribution to wider democracy in creating spaces in which people can learn, talk, think and dream.

Many adult educators across the UK still see themselves as working within this social-purpose tradition, but most will acknowledge too that they are swimming against the tide. Social purpose adult education – which has its roots in the (middle-class) idea that working-class people need opportunities to engage fully in culture and democracy – has been in decline for decades, replaced by a crude but utterly pervasive kind of economic utilitarianism, which makes it difficult for us even to talk about the things we think are most valuable about what we do. Increasingly, the fruits of a liberal education – among them, an appreciation of the arts and culture, an understanding of science, history and politics and an ability to think critically and question norms – are the preserve of the privileged few. For the vast majority of everybody else, education, at its heart, means not much more than preparation for work. Adult education’s role is to correct the failings of the school system, to support people in acquiring new skills for work or to help them update old ones.

This is all hugely important, of course, and, for many, this sort of intervention can be transformational. I don’t mean to disparage it. But if we are serious about developing a genuinely democratic society, we need adult education to be about more than vocational training and basic skills. We need more than employability skills to turn around foundering lives and failing communities. We need imagination, creativity, bravery, resilience, mental toughness, as well as a range of practical skills about engaging with the democratic process, starting up businesses, building up networks, and so on. There is more to empowerment than giving people the skills and know-how to get a job.

The Scottish independence debate has shown, among other things, that people are not necessarily disengaged from politics – at least, not as long as they feel that what they think, and the things they want to talk about, matter. As any adult educator will tell you, with the right sort of opportunity and encouragement, people will set their own agendas. Yet one result of our highly stratified education system is a democratic deficit, in which the vast majority of people feel politically disengaged, powerless to effect change. Party politics is peopled by ‘experts’ who, in such a vacuum, are able to make policy without democratic mandate, justified by empty rhetoric and half-truths. This is some way from the kind of democracy for which adult educators sought to prepare the first waves of Labour MPs, many of whom were former students of the WEA. Genuine democracy is dependent on continuing, lifelong education – the sort that opens up possibility rather than closing it down. It’s all well and good knowing the right answers, but we need to be able to question too.