‘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

Reading is for everyone

For many of us, as children, it is through reading that we get our first glimpse of a wider world, of difference, of beauty, darkness and danger. We read to escape, to discover, to laugh and to connect. We also read to learn. Reading can teach us to think and imagine, as well as developing more basic skills and capabilities which are pretty much essential in managing our day-to-day lives.

Yet, reading remains, for far too many of us, something that is for other people. This is partly to do with the failings of our compulsory education system – one in six adults of working age in the UK is estimated to have difficulty reading – but it is also a cultural issue. The problem is that, for very many people, reading has not been a source of joy and inspiration. It may well have been a lifelong struggle, associated, often, with feelings of anxiety, shame and humiliation. Or it may simply be they have never found the right sort of book (my Dad, for example, a lifelong Liverpool fan who has never felt much of an urge to read, recently devoured David Peace’s brilliant but difficult – and very, very long – Red or Dead).

It is little wonder that so many people simply do not see reading as being for them. They have never found a way to relate to or be comfortable with books. For these people, reading for pleasure can be hugely daunting. Entering a bookshop can be an intimidating experience. I remember how I felt at 16, on a YTS, taking one of those lovely, orange-and-white Penguin Modern Classics to the counter of Dillon’s bookshop in Liverpool. I assumed everyone who worked in the shop had read everything on the shelves. I also thought that, with the education I imagined they’d had, they knew far more than I did and had a far better understanding of books than I could ever have. I felt (wrongly) judged and inadequate. It felt better buying books in Woolworths or Boots.

For people who feel uncomfortable with books, who feel reading may not be for them, it often isn’t enough just to create an opportunity for them to be with and learn about books. They need support, encouragement and, perhaps above all, a place to start. In many cases this won’t be a bookshop. It will be in a classroom, the workplace or somewhere else in the community where they feel comfortable. Two remarkable initiatives illustrate how important these venues can be, and how much difference the right kind of support can make.

The first, Quick Reads, is a partnership of publishers, authors and adult education providers dedicated to improving literacy and engagement with reading. It has produced dozens of high-quality, short and fast-paced books by best-selling authors aimed at people who lack confidence as readers, and ensured they get into the hands of the people who can benefit from them most – those least likely to pick up a book.

An impact evaluation, carried out at the end of last year, demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive impact Quick Reads have on adult learners’ confidence and attitudes to reading and on their literacy skills, making literature accessible to more and more learners, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds associated with low participation in learning. The books are used year-on-year by practitioners in settings as diverse as prisons, libraries, family learning groups and workplaces, turning, as one tutor put it, ‘non-readers into readers’.

 The second notable project is The Reader Organisation. I’ve written at length about The Reader before. It’s an amazing project which demonstrates how great literature can be for everyone. I remember my last visit to the project, going out to a mental health centre where a group of young men who had probably never heard of Norman Mailer were reading The Fight, his barnstorming account of the 1974 boxing title fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. It was brilliant to see not only how the book resonated with these men, but how they grew in confidence through reading and listening. I also visited a reading group at Toxteth Library where it was obvious how members of the group relished dissecting a poem and how they benefited from the mutual support and encouragement of the others in the group.

The two approaches are different but I think they complement each other. Both have succeeded in making readers – and learners – out of people who had little interest in books before. They show that no-one should feel that reading and books aren’t for them. I know that from my own experience. Finding the right books for you, and finding people you can talk to and share your passion with, is incredibly important. I overcame my fear of bookshops and have since worked in a fair few myself. I can still happily spend hours browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s or breathing in the dust of a second-hand bookshop.

Reading opens so many doors. But first you need to be comfortable enough to think books can be for you. There need to be places and people who can support and signpost. As last year’s PIAAC report highlighted, the challenges in this area are huge, and there is a very significant job to be done in ensuring there is support out there for people taking that first step into reading. Critically, we need to ensure that there is well-funded adult education provision out there for people to access, in ways and in settings that suit them. For so many people, that is where they make their start, where fires are set that last a lifetime. As everyone who has discovered a love of reading will know, it is a wonderful thing to plant a seed. But flowers do not grow by themselves.