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Skills for Life: Progress in Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy

The strategy to improve basic literacy and numeracy skills has helped over 5.7 million adults achieve a qualification or other specified learning aim at a cost of £5 billion, according to the National Audit Office. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council exceeded targets for the number of adults reaching basic literacy and numeracy standards (750,000 by 2004 and 1.5 million by 2007). The Department is also on course to meet the 2010 target of improving the basic skills of 2.25 million adults.

Less progress has been made in strengthening numeracy skills compared with literacy skills. Numeracy courses are less popular than literacy courses with fewer people participating in them and achieving qualifications. Many people with literacy and numeracy needs come into contact with different parts of government, such as Jobcentre Plus. The Department could make better use of these contacts to engage people on Skills for Life courses.

Participation and achievement levels for people with a literacy or numeracy need vary across the country. Based on the 2003 survey of need, the North East and North West have the best rates of achievement for both literacy and numeracy. In contrast, the East of England and East Midlands have the lowest rates of achievement for literacy and East of England and London, the lowest rates of achievement for numeracy.

Between 2001 and 2004, spending on English for Speakers of Other Languages courses tripled to almost £300 million a year. However, demand for these courses has exceeded supply, particularly in London.

Although significant progress is being made against targets, until the Department updates its assessment of literacy and numeracy needs, the scale of the challenge regarding adult skill levels will remain unclear.

The skill levels of the adult teaching workforce are improving but many do not hold relevant qualifications in all subjects they teach. Two-thirds of literacy and numeracy teachers teach more than one subject, but fewer than 10 per cent of these hold appropriate qualifications in all subjects they teach.

“The Skills for Life strategy is making good progress in improving the skill levels of adults with poor literacy, language and numeracy skills. Building on this progress, the Department needs to reduce regional variations in participation and in achievement levels for people with literacy or numeracy needs. It could also work more closely with other parts of government to encourage people to take up Skills for Life courses.”

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

  1. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has taken forward work of the Department for Education and Skills before it on Skills for Life.
  2. The 2010 target refers to the number of people achieving qualifications - a person achieving more than one qualification should only be counted once. Only qualifications at Entry Level 3 (the national school curriculum equivalent for attainment at age 9-11), Level 1 (equivalent to GCSE grades D-G) or Level 2 (equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C) count towards the target, and only specified qualifications count. Specified qualifications are the national tests of literacy and numeracy developed for Skills for Life, approved qualifications in English for Speakers of Other Languages, Key Skills qualifications in communication and application of number, and GCSEs in English and mathematics.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at https://www.nao.org.uk/. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Tim Burr, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 850 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 26/08