Adult literacy and numeracy report

29 January 2009

The Public Accounts Committee today publishes a report looking at the progress made in improving adult literacy and numeracy in England.

Skills for Life strategy

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:

"The Skills for Life strategy was launched in 2001 with the aim of improving adult literacy and numeracy in England. By 2007, despite expenditure of some £5 billion, the evidence was that a large proportion of the adult population still could not read, write and count adequately. According to the most recent figures, the UK is ranked 14th in the international league tables of literacy and numeracy."

Government strategy

Edward Leigh MP, went on to say that:

"The Department’s new ambition, announced in 2007, is that, by 2020, 95 per cent of the population of working age will be at least functionally literate and numerate – the basic level of skills needed to get by in life. But, even if that ambition is realised, England will be raised only to the current standards of the top 25 per cent of OECD countries and they will probably have forged ahead by then.

"This is a dismal picture, both for the many who face diminished prospects in what they can achieve in life and for the competitiveness of our country in the world economy. There is an immediate need to gather up to date information on where we are at present. The Department must follow up its 2003 Skills for Life survey to find out just how effective its programme has been in improving the basic skills of our population.

"As the Department acknowledges, more progress has been made in improving literacy than in improving numeracy. New approaches to the recruitment of numeracy teachers must be adopted. The Department must also do more to encourage public services such as health and housing to promote among their clients training opportunities. The Prison Service can play a vital role in helping offenders, a large proportion of whom have low levels of literacy and numeracy."

Improving literacy, language and numeracy skills

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its third report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council, examined their efforts to improve the literacy, language and numeracy skills of adults in England, focusing on the size of the problem, what is being achieved, what needs to be done and reaching more learners.

Although the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and its predecessor, the Department for Education and Skills, spent around £5 billion on basic skills courses between 2001 and 2007 (£9 billion by 2011), large numbers of the adult working population of England remain functionally illiterate and innumerate. Tackling poor literacy, language and numeracy skills is essential if more people are to realise their full potential and the country is to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy. In 2001, the then Department for Education and Skills launched the Skills for Life strategy, with a Public Service Agreement target to improve the skills of 2.25 million adults in England by 2010. This target was met over two years early.

In 2003, an estimated 75 per cent of the adult population of working age had numeracy skills below the level of a good pass at GCSE and 56 per cent had literacy skills below this level. At that time, based on data collected in 1996, OECD assessed the United Kingdom as 14th in the literacy and numeracy international league tables, with relative levels of illiteracy and innumeracy some three times that of the Scandinavian countries. More recent figures are not available but, despite improvements in the number of pupils leaving school with literacy and numeracy skills, many still complete their formal education without GCSEs in English and maths.

Government strategy and targets

In July 2007, the Government announced a new objective to help 95 per cent of the adult population of working age achieve functional literacy and numeracy (the level of skill generally needed to get by in life) by 2020. Achieving this ambition would, however, only raise England to the standards currently achieved by the top 25 per cent of OECD member countries. There are now separate targets for literacy and numeracy which focus on achieving the functional level of skill. The new targets, especially for numeracy, will be challenging to meet and, to date, far less progress has been made tackling poor numeracy skills compared with literacy skills. This is not helped by the low number of numeracy teachers available.

Many hard-to-reach people with poor literacy and numeracy skills come into contact with other government services, such as Jobcentre Plus, the Prison Service and the Probation Service. More of these people are being encouraged to take up courses to improve their literacy and numeracy skills, but the percentage who participate is still relatively small. For example, only one in five offenders with an identified literacy or numeracy need enrol on a course. The Department’s biggest challenges are reaching people in the workplace who lack skills and getting employers to recognise the benefits of raising the skills of their workforce.

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