Literacy is a fundamental right

7 October 2014

A version of this column was originally published in The Municipal Journal on 24 September 2014.

In early 2014, NIACE was instrumental in influencing Parliament’s cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee to undertake a significant national inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy. Adrian Bailey MP, chair of the BIS committee, praised NIACE for hosting an ‘invaluable’ event in March, in which we showcased the steps to tackle low levels of adult English and maths by colleges, local government, employers, training providers and offender management services.

The committee’s final report, published on 8 September, recognises the ‘ability to gain literacy and numeracy skills as a fundamental right of all adults’ as well as the need for flexibility in how funding and provision secures this.

The report calls for government to launch a high-profile campaign to tackle the low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England. It also recommends improved funding arrangements and better assessment and support of the literacy and numeracy needs of unemployed people, something NIACE has argued in favour of for some time.

The BIS committee said: ‘Adult learning plays a vital role in helping people escape the trap of low-skilled jobs or unemployment, yet found there was little rigorous or uniform assessment in place for when adults claim unemployment benefit – despite the fact that this is an ideal opportunity to help adults to gain essential skills needed to get a job’.

The report echoed important aspects of our recent manifesto for the General Election, Skills for Prosperity, highlighting:

  • Less linear learning schemes are often more effective in engaging adults and improving their literacy and numeracy.
  • A call for improved cross-departmental working between BIS, DfE, DCLG, DWP, MoD and MoJ.
  • A call for the Government to take a more flexible approach to educating adults, through the provision of Personal Skills Accounts funded by learners, employers and the state and giving individuals greater control over their own learning.

In our response, echoing the concerns of our many supporters in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships, we argued that good quality provision must be made available in a range of settings – colleges, adult education centres, workplaces, communities, as well as in schools to help families learn together, helping to break intergenerational cycles of low literacy and numeracy.

As well as English and maths, we have also built digital skills into our national R&D programme and argue prominently that this must be considered alongside literacy and numeracy as the ‘third basic skill’. Nearly all – 90% – of new jobs by 2015 will require at least basic digital skills.

What we are witnessing in all of these debates is the gradual and necessary rehabilitation of lifelong learning on the national stage. As the BIS Committee report recognises, this is no longer simply a nice term in the “comfort zone” of adult education traditionalists, but a fundamental driver of future national economic success.

NIACE is fighting to secure the concept of lifelong learning as a vital part of a successful economy and society and we are succeeding because Government and Opposition parties are not only using the term ‘lifelong learning’, but bringing forward practical proposals to deliver it to help address adult literacy and numeracy deficits that hold back populations in local communities across the country. In an ever stronger partnership with LEPs and local government, we are making good ground in securing this in national debate as a crunch election issue all parties now have to take seriously in their 2015-20 economic plans.



Peter Lavender

October 15th, 2014 at 12:11 pm

I thought Tom’s reminder that NIACE’s report called for yet another adult literacy campaign is well made. It would be at least the third national campaign if the call is successful. Some reflection on previous campaigns might be useful for NIACE to do, given the amounts of money expended on them. But perhaps the most significant thing in such a call for development is that by raising it there may well be some protection afforded from the hatchets likely to be out and cutting FE following the election.