‘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

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