Investing in literacy and numeracy does pay

8 November 2012

Good literacy and numeracy skills are crucial in helping Servicemen and women carry out their jobs and take advantage of the training and career opportunities on offer in the Armed Forces. This was the official line from the three-year Armed Forces Basic Skills Longitudinal Study by NIACE and NRDC, which was published back in June. Yesterday, the findings of the study – commissioned by BIS and the MOD – were discussed at a NIACE seminar, which also launched a new summary publication which includes potential lessons for other large employers.

The study highlights how the Armed Forces’ strong commitment to helping those with low levels of English and maths skills has brought benefits not only for the individual, but also for the organisation. In particular it gives specific importance to:

  • Adopting a whole organisation approach to improving the workforce’s literacy and numeracy skills, as well as getting senior stakeholders with the necessary power, authority and resources to take ownership and drive the developments forward.
  • Setting minimum literacy and numeracy standards as requirements for promotion to higher rank which engages both learners and their line managers more effectively.
  • Releasing employees to access literacy and numeracy support during work time.
  • Fitting this support around work commitments and making it purposeful and directly relevant to the work and lives of the learners, through the use of contextualised programmes and blended learning.
  • Developing a supportive and enabling environment that values individual improvement and development and that cultivates an expectation of success in training across the organisation.
  • Recognising the priority of speaking and listening skills and their impact on self-esteem.

Much can be learned from the Armed Forces’ experience, especially their welcome focus on speaking and listening skills. For too long, the improvement of speaking and listening skills has been in the shadows when it comes to curriculum development, classroom practice and assessment. It has not been given the priority on literacy support programmes that it warrants; as teaching time to cover the whole curriculum is under growing pressure. The assessment of these skills has not been as rigorous as for others and tutor training in this area is not well developed.  Yet, across all levels of the Services, good speaking and listening skills are regarded as essential for day-to-day business and especially in the stressful environment of front-line operations such as in Afghanistan.  

But assessing speaking and listening skills accurately and identifying individual learners’ skills gaps in this area are not easy. Within already over-heated teaching programmes, there is a significant temptation to gloss over this area of the curriculum; not to exploit the close relationship between speaking and listening and the other reading, writing and thinking skills; and to use the speaking and listening assessment as no more than a tick-box exercise. Work in the Army to develop and introduce an English-speaking and listening screening tool for use in its recruiting and selection procedures, showed how difficult it was to achieve and maintain validity and reliability across assessments. It is ever more important that, with the introduction of Functional Skills, effective training is put in place for practitioners to support speaking and listening skills development and to conduct the internally marked assessments in a valid and reliable way.  Awarding organisations too should better enforce robust and effective assurance arrangements to secure the necessary quality, in practice.

The Longitudinal Study has provided a valuable insight into the value of literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace. There still remains a need to get a tighter handle on the return on investment (including social return) at the individual level and for the organisation – in relation to the timing and quality of literacy and numeracy interventions throughout a Service career. I am sure that such future research in the Armed Forces could effectively inform future national policy and provision practice.

Martin Rose is one of two NIACE Programme Managers working on full-time secondment in the Army’s Directorate of Educational & Training Services. He is assisting with the development of Army literacy and numeracy policy, its implementation and subsequent evaluation.

All photographs Crown Copyright 2012, from