Skip to main content

Skills for life: improving adult literacy and numeracy

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.

"Higher levels of literacy and numeracy will benefit England both socially and economically. More people will have the opportunity to live richer lives. The Department has made substantial progress since 2001 in improving the teaching of literacy and numeracy and making more people aware of the options and wanting to learn. But this is only the beginning. The Department and its partners will need to be creative and responsive if they are to reach another 1.5 million people by 2010. My report sets out some of the steps they need to take if they are to succeed."

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors

  1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is now at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  2. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 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: 75/04