Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported today that the Department for Education and Skills has made a good start to its long-term strategy to improve the levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England, but there are more challenges ahead. While the Skills for Life Strategy has met its 2004 target, if it is to meet the target for 2010 it will need to maintain and build on what it has already achieved. For example the quality of literacy and numeracy teaching will need to be improved further and there are still barriers facing many of the people most in need of assistance.
Twenty-six million people of working age have levels of literacy and numeracy below those expected of school leavers. People with the lowest levels of skills – those expected of a 9 to 11 year old or below – can experience practical difficulties in their every day lives. Many work in low-skilled employment, are unemployed, or on benefits. In March 2001 the Department for Education and Skills launched the Skills for Life Strategy which began a long-term programme to break the cycle of low literacy and numeracy skills in England. At least £3.7 billion will be spent on implementing the programme by 2006. The Strategy is starting to have an impact on people’s levels of literacy and numeracy and is increasing participation in learning.
- The latest estimates suggest that the Department has achieved its 2004 target of increasing the skills of 750,000 people. Achievement of the 2010 target will require a further 1.5 million learners to achieve a first qualification – so a further large number of people needs to be encouraged into learning, from a wide range of groups, some of whom will be harder to engage than others.
- Before 2001, adult literacy and numeracy learning was low status, and the Department started by doing a lot of work to improve the framework for delivery. The quality of learning still needs to be raised, and more teachers with up to date training in teaching literacy, language and numeracy are needed. Initiatives are in place to train teachers but will take time to make an impact.
- The Department has sponsored a variety of approaches to identifying people with low skills and engaging them in learning. It will need to continue to find and sponsor new and creative ways to persuade more people with the lowest skill levels that improving their skills is worthwhile. There continue to be high barriers to some people taking up opportunities to learn, or to them continuing with learning once started. More providers need to develop creative and flexible learning that attracts learners and encourages them to improve.
- The Department has promoted initiatives to engage employers but progress at local level is slow. Low skilled employees are one the hardest groups to reach and more small and medium sized employers need to be persuaded of the benefits of raising the skills of their employees.
- Voluntary and community organisations are essential partners because they are often best placed to encourage into learning those people who are very hard to reach. Barriers to these organisations becoming effectively involved have been identified and the Learning and Skills Council is working to address them.