Using evidence to support adult learning

3 February 2016

The OECD’s report, Building Skills for All: A Review of England, provides another reality check on the millions of adults who have low basic skills. An estimated 9 million adults aged 16-65 have low literacy or numeracy skills or both. England is around average for literacy in comparison to other OECD countries in the survey, and well below average for numeracy. Young people are falling behind their counterparts in other countries, and perform no better than adults approaching retirement age.

These are shocking statistics, but sadly don’t come as any real surprise. The UK is a research-rich nation and the challenges around basic skills amongst adults have been exposed through the Government’s Skills for Life surveys in 2003 and 2011. We also know that in 2014 only around 3 in 5 young people left school with A*-C grade GCSEs in English and maths. The research, however, is particularly useful because it enables us to benchmark ourselves against other countries, and it identifies a number of specific groups who are missing out and therefore where resources may be best targeted.

So we know the nature and scale of the challenges, but what do we know about addressing them? The OECD report recommends using evidence to advance adult learning – that evidence should inform teaching methods and interventions. As an organisation committed to evidence-based thinking and approaches, Learning and Work Institute absolutely agrees with this statement. However, as the report acknowledges, evidence on what works and why is limited. We also need to have a more coherent and robust approach to capturing and measuring the impact that improving basic skills can make to people’s lives.

Understanding what works in improving adults’ basic skills is complex, but an intervention can only be effective if adults can be successfully reached and engaged. The OECD report describes some of the barriers that adults experience to basic skills learning – negative perceptions of learning, lack of awareness, embarrassment, finding space in their lives for learning. Motivation is a real issue. 

Last year, we carried out research with young people aged 16-24 to hear about about their experiences of learning English and maths at school and in post-16 education. We asked them what they would find motivating and what had made the difference for them. This research was all the more powerful because we supported teachers to interview their learners. They got to hear firsthand what they respond well to and what would hook them in. This is a good example of how small-scale research and learner voice can directly inform teaching practices.

We know that adults’ lives are diverse and we’re all motivated by different things, and it’s crucial to take a personalised approach to engaging adults. Some will be motivated to improve their skills for a promotion at work, or to better manage their money, or to help children with homework. 

Our Citizens’ Curriculum is an example of an evidence-based approach to delivering basic skills, where the curriculum is tailored to the individual. It incorporates the core set of skills people need for the 21st Century – English, maths, ESOL, civic, health and financial capabilities. Learners shape the curriculum to ensure it fully meets their needs and interests. The pilots are already providing insight into methods of adopting a Citizens’ Curriculum, and initial evaluation shows how effective the approach is in engaging and supporting disadvantaged learners.