Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 21 of Session 2005, dated 24 January 2006


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

"The low level of literacy and numeracy in the adult population is bad for national productivity and bad for those individuals who may struggle to cope with work and daily living. The Department has the laudable long-term aim through its 2001 Skills for Life strategy of making sure that England has one of the best literacy and numeracy rates in the world. But the task is a huge one and will become increasingly difficult and expensive to achieve.

"£3.7 billion will have been spent by 2006 on implementing this strategy; but no one knows exactly how much more money will be needed from 2006 to 2010: on current patterns, perhaps more than £2 billion. The Department must harden up its estimates of future costs. It must also zealously hold the line against any dilution of qualification standards.

"The ultimate success of Skills for Life will depend on the 'hard to reach' being persuaded of the benefits of gaining qualifications. To this end, it is a matter of grave concern that those with the greatest need have been getting the worst quality of teaching. The Department must also reduce the proportion of programme resources being used to enable recent school leavers to achieve the qualifications in English and maths they should have got at school."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 21st Report of this Session, which examined the progress made in improving the literacy, language and numeracy skills of adults in England, expanding learning provision and improving its quality, and reaching adults who need to improve their skills.

The Committee found that the UK has lower levels of literacy and numeracy in the adult population of working age than many of our international competitors. This is partly due to long standing low levels of achievement in schools, where there are improvements in train that the Department for Education and Skills expects will raise results in a few years' time. To address the needs of adults in England, in 2001 the Department launched an ambitious strategy, with a target to improve the skills of 2.25 million adults by 2010.

By 2006, at least £3.7 billion will have been spent on the strategy, Skills for Life. Given the size of the challenge, it is likely only to mark the start of a long-term programme, but it is not clear how much more money will be needed to make real improvements in our position relative to other countries. Estimated further expenditure of over £2 billion could be needed to sustain the strategy until 2010.

The Learning and Skills Council plans and funds learning provision by further education colleges and a range of other providers. None are under the Council's direct control, and it uses its annual business cycle - involving discussions with colleges and other providers and approval of their development plans - to influence their contribution to meeting the priorities of the strategy.

New qualifications, developed to replace over seventy that were of variable quality, are underpinned by national standards and curricula. However, the first few years of the strategy have produced little evidence of improvement in the quality of provision, and people with the greatest need get the worst provision. Raising quality will depend on raising the skills and capability of the teaching workforce. There are new, higher qualifications for new teachers, and training for existing teachers. The Department intends all teachers to be qualified by 2010, but existing teachers are not individually required to qualify by any set time.

The Department achieved its first milestone of 750,000 adults achieving qualifications by July 2004. Over half were gained by 16 to 18 year olds who had not managed to get the qualifications at school. More recently, the balance of the programme has been moving in favour of older adults. So far most learning has been provided as courses in further education colleges, where most of the teaching expertise is concentrated.

The future targets are challenging. The 2007 milestone is for 1.5 million adults to achieve qualifications, and the 2010 target to raise this further to 2.25 million adults. The Department has started to work with the Civil Service and large private sector employers. Local Learning and Skills Councils find that many small and medium sized enterprises are reluctant to provide their employees with opportunities to improve their literacy and numeracy. If the targets are to be met, employers of people with low skills need to be persuaded to identify employees who need help to improve, and encourage them to take up appropriate training. In addition, people should be able to continue learning as their personal circumstances change, for example as they move in and out of work. There is a need for better joined-up working between government agencies, and collaboration from employers, so that there are no unnecessary obstacles to people completing their course when they start a new job.

An increasing proportion of the strategy's resources is devoted to English for speakers of other languages. Progress is being made through community groups to reach people with language needs, and the lessons should be disseminated to areas of the country where there are increasing needs but little experience of dealing with them.

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