Low levels of literacy and numeracy in the adult population in England constitute a long-standing issue which has, over several decades of policy intervention, proven stubbornly difficult to reverse. While the recent white paper on further education reaffirmed the government’s commitment to improving adult literacy and numeracy, and this is very welcome, the challenge remains immense, with an estimated nine million adults of working age reportedly struggling with low basic skills. The cost of this is enormous, whether you measure it in terms of thwarted life chances or loss to the economy.
This is not to say there have been no successes or improvements in this time. The national Skills for Life strategy, which engaged 14 million people in adult literacy and numeracy and supported the achievement of 8 million qualifications between 2001 and 2011, is probably the most prominent example in recent years. The improvements it produced, with more than five million adults gaining skills at Level 2, demonstrated just how successful this kind of intervention can be, and, in particular, the value of targeted investment in adult skills and the importance of wide, multi-level partnership in ensuring effective delivery. The failure of the programme to engage learners below Level 2, and the impact of the government’s decision to redirect investment from wider FE provision to skills more narrowly conceived, also provide lessons as to the need for policy to be both holistic and cogent.
The fact that adult participation has dropped further since the programme finished reflects both the chronic short-termism of government policy and the failure of ministers to learn from or build on the successes of the past. Further education, perhaps more than any other part of the education system, suffers acutely from this shortness in policy memory. Little wonder, then, that every few years we find ourselves rolling up our sleeves and gathering around the drawing board to reinvent the wheel. That is why I particularly value this publication, and why the Further Education Trust for Leadership has been pleased to fund it. Rather than proposing a revolution in our approach to skills, I would much prefer we took a careful, measured approach to improving the system, building thoughtfully on what worked before and reflecting intelligently on how fresh interventions can articulate with what is already in place. This is what this report attempts to do. There is an important lesson in this for politicians and civil servants. In reforming further education and skills, we must ensure policy does not repeat the mistakes of the past and reflect on the challenges we face now in a way that learns these lessons and coheres with the wider policy architecture of the present.
Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership