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Committee calls for national campaign on adult literacy and numeracy

8 September 2014

On UN International Literacy Day (8 September), the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee publishes a report recommending the Government launch a high-profile campaign to tackle the alarmingly low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England.

In light of an OECD survey of 24 countries ranking England and Northern Ireland 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy, the Committee also calls for a more joined-up Government approach to tackling the problem, improved funding arrangements, and better assessment and support of the literacy and numeracy needs of unemployed people.
The Committee found that adults struggling most at English and maths are not getting the help and support needed. While the Government pledges free training and tuition for any adult who wishes to study English and maths up to and including GCSE level, the Committee heard that adults with the most limited English and maths skills were not aware of the support available.

Adrian Bailey MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Problems with reading, writing and maths have a huge impact on people’s daily lives, including getting and keeping a job, understanding bills, forms and documents, and guiding children through education. It can affect adults in many walks of life, but it also undermines the economic performance of our country.

There is no silver bullet to tackling the problem of low levels of adult literacy and numeracy but a national campaign will help to get the message out to those who are most in need of support.

By adopting the recommendations of our report, the Government can make a real difference to people’s lives and our economy’s productivity".

Unemployment benefit

Adult learning can play a vital role in helping people escape the trap of low-skilled jobs or unemployment, yet the Committee found there was little rigorous or uniform assessment in place for when adults claim unemployment benefit—despite the fact that this is an ideal opportunity to help adults to gain essential skills needed to get a job.

The Committee calls on the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, and Jobcentre Plus and skills providers to work closely to ensure there is consistent and thorough assessment of skills at the earliest possible stage of unemployment benefit claims.

Adult learning

The Committee urges the Government to take a more flexible approach to adult learning, both in the types of programme on offer – by voluntary and paid organisations – and in the types of funding given by the Government. The Committee is concerned about reductions in funding to adult learning schemes and calls on the Government to reverse its decision to cut funding to Unionlearn, a scheme which has achieved outstanding results at a fraction of the cost of full-time formal education.

The Committee also recommends the Government move away from its preoccupation with GCSEs as the ‘gold standard’ of measurement for adult skills, as less linear and traditional learning schemes are often more effective in engaging adults and improving their literacy and numeracy.

Adrian Bailey MP, Chair:

"During our inquiry, we heard of many fantastic examples of literacy and numeracy programmes in a variety of settings, from workplaces, community centres, schools, prisons, to those organised by homeless charities. The video we’ve produced to accompany the report includes a summary of our findings and the Committee’s recommendations but I hope it also acts as a showcase for the positive impact which effective learning can have on individuals’ literacy and numeracy skills.

I hope the Government will react positively to our recommendations and produce a video in response".

Many Government Departments have adult literacy and numeracy included in their remits but the Committee found that closer collaboration was needed. To deliver more coordinated and effective Government support for literacy and numeracy programmes and policies, the Committee recommends each relevant Department nominate a civil servant to act as champion for adult literacy and numeracy.

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