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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.

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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


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