Too many good reports?

8 September 2014

Are there too many reports setting out the challenges we face in learning and skills and the solutions we need to put into action? Yesterday was a great example of this, with four reports – from the UKCES, the BIS Select Committee, Save the Children and the Liberal Democrats – all setting out similar compelling arguments for change.

The trouble is, they all say useful things and echo much of what we have been saying in our own reports, including our manifesto which we published in June. This is particularly true of the Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto which pleasingly endorsed and built upon many of our proposals for action.

I was particularly intrigued at the coincidence of the other three though, because they all provide more weight to our position that more needs to be spent on literacy and numeracy. Interestingly, all of the reports broadly support the need for more flexible, more informal and more locally joined-up learning delivery. In other words, the four reports make it clear that we need to make changes to address the skills needs of the UK.

The BIS Select Committee inquiry into literacy and numeracy says many of the things we have been saying for many years and came up with some sensible and helpful recommendations. It ends with a call for a high-profile national campaign to promote free training for literacy and numeracy. This is a good idea, along with others in the report. When considered in light of the UKCES report it feels even more important that the BIS Select Committee recommendations are properly considered.

I say this because the UKCES report sets out the stark challenge for the UK that whilst by 2020 nearly half the adult population would be qualified at Level 4+ we will still be living in a country in which 7 million adults would be qualified below Level 2. Unsurprisingly, when compared to other OECD countries, the UK performs well on high-level skills, but is in the third quartile of countries for numbers at low and medium skill levels. UKCES therefore argues, as NIACE has for a while, that there is a clear policy priority to address the long ‘tail’ of lower skilled members of the UK workforce.

I would go further than the UKCES on this, because the situation is probably even worse than the report sets out. The 2020 estimate is based on recent trends in learning and skills achievements. We know that funding for adults from the state and by employers has dropped and looks set to drop even further in the next few years. If that is the case then the 7 million figure may be optimistic.

The Save the Children report says that poor literacy could cost the UK as much as £32bn in growth over the next 10 years and calls for action to ensure all 11 year olds can ‘read well’ by 2025. That will require adults to read to their children and to achieve it we will need more support for millions of adults to have the confidence and skills to be able to do that.

I would also urge you to read the BIS Select Committee report to appreciate how powerful learning can be for people with low level skills and also how much more needs to be done to deliver learning and support which really works at lower levels. It is exciting and ‘sexy’ to focus on higher level skills, but it is right to also pay more attention to, and put more resource into, lower level provision as well.

So, lots of reports, reams of firm evidence and lots of agreement about the challenges and some of the solutions. What we need now is some concerted actions and leadership to pull people and resources together. I’m happy to play my part with NIACE to help make that happen, I just hope you are too?