Why basic skills without employer support just isn’t cricket

16 February 2016

I’m quite possibly the only person in the country who associates beating Australia at cricket with delivering workplace basic skills.   Like most England cricket fans, I can remember exactly where I was when England won the Ashes in 2005.  Not, unfortunately, at the Oval or even glued to the TV, but at a well-known clothing company’s vast distribution centre somewhere between Huddersfield and the M1, teaching English to warehouse employees.  I nipped out to the car in between classes to get the latest on the radio, and during the afternoon session – sorry, lesson – the shift’s training manager passed me slips of paper with the score scribbled on as the tension mounted. 

So reading the new BIS report on the impact of poor basic skills in the workplace reminded me of that afternoon and triggered good memories – not just cricket-related, but also of a welcome focus on workplace basic skills.  It strikes me that, in some ways the fortunes of basic skills delivery in the workplace over the past 10 years or so are not dissimilar to the England cricket team’s: in retrospect, the mid-2000s seem like a high water mark, and although there have been some important achievements since, there’s now a lot of work to be done. 

The Skills for Life ‘Train to Gain’ initiative may not have been effective, particularly literacy and numeracy delivery which prioritised Level 2 qualifications, but there was at least a focus on employer engagement.  According to the BIS report, at present 85% of employers don’t provide basic skills training and 90% don’t recognise a need for it.  This is concerning, but perhaps unsurprising.  Under Skills for Life it was still possible to deliver non-accredited basic skills training, allowing providers to deliver short courses focussing on language, literacy and numeracy skills tailored to the particular workplace.  These kinds of courses were often more valued by employers than the achievement of qualifications they didn’t understand or recognise.

Recently, as part of the STRAIGHTEN Basic Skills project, Learning and Work Institute (L&W) has been conducting a synthesis of effective practice in the delivery of workplace basic skills with five European partners.  On the basis of experience and practice in the UK, Germany, France, Austria, Norway and Romania, we’ve identified a number of success indicators for work-related basic skills delivery.  For some of these, the environment in England is supportive, yet more needs to be done to allow providers to respond more flexibly to employers’ and employees’ needs.

One finding that stands out is that employers may need support in understanding the literacy and numeracy requirements of everyday workplace practices.  The current reform of Functional Skills qualifications and national standards is something that can help to address this.  L&W is working with Pye-Tait Consulting to deliver an employer-focussed consultation on the adult literacy and numeracy standards, and we hope that by engaging in this, employers will be encouraged to think about basic skills in the workplace, as well as helping to shape standards which are relevant in life and at work.

Alex Stevenson is Head of English, Maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute.