First major inquiry into adult learning for over a decade

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Ian Nash, member of the Policy Consortium, unpicks the subtleties behind the headlines on the BIS inquiry into adult learning …

The first parliamentary inquiry for 13 years looking exclusively into the state of adult literacy and numeracy was announced this week, following recent OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) survey revelations of a dramatic decline in standards among young adults.

The OECD Survey of Adult Skills is the new PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) for adults (otherwise known as PIAAC, the Programme for International Student Adult Competencies ). Last autumn, it showed all countries had cause for serious concern except for Finland, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands which had made impressive progress equipping more young adults with better literacy and numeracy skills.

Conservative MP Caroline Dinenage has been the driving force behind the call for a national inquiry in England since well before the release of the OECD report. The new inquiry by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) education select committee is the first since 2001 following the collapse of Individual Learning Accounts under the Labour administration. Her concerns – that adult education had suffered unduly with the concentration on school-age education – were echoed by the OECD.

José Ángel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, said on publication of the report:

Too many people are being left behind today. With effective education and life-long learning everyone can develop their full potential. The benefits are clear, not only for individuals, but also for societies and for the economy.

While high-quality initial education was an important predictor for success in adult life, he said, countries had to combine this with flexible, skills-oriented learning opportunities throughout life, in particular for working-age adults.

But Dinenage’s concerns run deeper than a question of competition between school-age and adult learning for inevitably limited state funds. Whenever there is substantial investment, she argues, it is too often through formal educational channels, FE colleges and other institutions rather than through informal learning. The Commons’ inquiry will, therefore address the central issues around ways of sustaining networks of Third Sector involvement with constructive support from colleges and other formal settings where they add value.

She noted:

In my constituency (Gosport), we have very successful literacy and numeracy schemes like the ‘Out There’ project run by St. Vincent College, which provides accessible training for adults. And there is the Read & Grow charity started by Andy Paradise, an ex-prisoner, which uses peer-to-peer learning as a tool for rehabilitation. Andy Paradise says he was shocked by the very low rates of literacy he witnessed while in Dorchester Prison.

Opening the Commons debate on adult learning, following the release of the OECD report, Dinenage said little change had been seen in the UK in spite of initiatives introduced by successive governments over recent decades. The OECD survey ranked England 15th out of 24 countries, with 5.8 million adults at the lowest level of proficiency in literacy. She called on the Government ‘to renew efforts to provide imaginative, targeted and accessible support to illiterate and innumerate adults’.

The Survey looked at the key skills of literacy and numeracy and the skill of ‘problem solving in technology-rich environments’. Around 166,000 adults aged 16–65 were surveyed in 24 countries and sub-national regions.

In England and the United States, according to the OECD, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people entering the labour market are no better than those leaving for retirement. England ranks among the top three countries surveyed for literacy skills among the 55–65 year-olds. But the country is in the bottom three when it comes to such skills among 16–25 year-olds. The reasons are not easy to unpick, says Mick Fletcher, a researcher, writer on FE and member of the Policy Consortium: ‘The fact that the over-55s in England do as well as school leavers could be evidence that second chance services for adults are pretty effective. This point is rarely made but quite plausible.’

It could also be the way in which education has changed over that period for young people, says Carole Overton, independent consultant and member of the Policy consortium. ‘It could be that there is less emphasis on basic skills, with the wide and varying curriculum pushing it to one side. There is also the way in which basic skills is learned. I have always been for integration but there is a place for specific basic skills work – literacy and numeracy – being taught separately as well.’

One reason identified by the OECD and Niace, the national adult learning organisation, is that the underfunding of second-chance adult education sends out the wrong signals of hopelessness and failure, not only to those who failed before but to younger generations who assume they will be lifelong failures like their parents. The BIS Committee inquiry into Adult Literacy and Numeracy, chaired by Adrian Bailey (Labour MP for West Bromwich West), welcomes written submissions of evidence from all interested individuals and organisations and will address three questions:

  • What is the Government currently doing to help adults improve their reading, writing and maths skills?
  • How can the Government make sure that adults have the right skills to help them find a job, which in turn will help the country?
  • What are the best ways to help adults learn how to read, write and do maths –through formal education providers or in a different way?

Seb SchmollerWith such a rapid inquiry envisaged, there is concern that key issues may be missed out. , member of the Policy Consortium and former Chief Executive of the Association for Learning Technology, says: ‘One would hope that the inquiry will emphasise the issue of ‘online’ services as a potential vehicle for improving numeracy and literacy.’

Education researchers in the field agree with him that the ubiquity of SMS (texting) is probably one reason why literacy levels seem to have bottomed out.

The deadline for written evidence is Thursday 6 February and there will be three oral evidence sessions. The committee remit says the scope of this inquiry will not include English for Speakers of Other Languages. Ostensibly this is because of the timescale and need for rapid action. But sources close to the committee said:

ESOL demand is much greater than supply and any coverage of this would be opening a can of worms since the Coalition government destroyed much of the good provision that existed when they came to office.

One area the committee is keen to address – and one Dinenage fought hard to protect in her constituency – is the work around a raft of small organisations and how these can co-ordinate activities constructively. For example, housing associations have launched emergency financial literacy classes for innumerate tenants dealing with reduced benefits and the bedroom tax and facing universal credits. The Read & Grow project recently benefited from Lottery funds and she wants more effort put into sharing evidence and rolling out successful programmes nationally.

Alastair Thomson, principal policy officer for Niace, said:

I am optimistic. It’s the first select committee dealing exclusively with adult learning and skills for many years and it comes at a time when all the political parties will be thinking of what should be going into their manifestos. It we look around, we see a whole range of organisations small and large, such as the WEA, who are keen to spread good practice. They deserve all the help we can give them.

Peer-to-peer work such as Read & Grow uses people without formal training and can be a route to adult teaching in the community for people without formal qualifications. Tutor guides to equip enthusiastic volunteers with basic teaching skills have been produced by organisations such as U3A.

‘There is considerable scope for the voluntary sector to develop new opportunities and routes for adult learning and Niace will be feeding a lot of evidence into the inquiry to back this and show where practical action can be effective,’ said Thomson.

More information and advice on how to submit written evidence

This is a revised version of a feature that appeared in Education Journal week beginning 20 January 2014

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