Why we need to wake up to falling participation in adult basic skills

18 October 2017

Normally, I’d rather watch an outstanding learner testimony to the impact of learning to read and write than delve into the 19+ English and maths participation statistics, but the most recent figures are compelling. Only not in a good way.  As Learning and Work CEO Stephen Evans has written, the latest participation data is not far short of disastrous.

Provisional data for 16/17 show an overall fall of 6% in participation in adult English and maths learning, down to 760,600 from 809,400 in 15/16.  Within that, English has dropped from 589,100 to 536,700, down by 8.9%, while maths is down by 6%, from 563,00 to 529,300.  ESOL has increased slightly, up by 3.5% from 110,500 in 15/16 to 114,400 in 16/17.  This increase is not grounds for optimism, as the 110,500 represents a fall of 15.6% from 14/15, when participation was around 130,000 – in itself, a dramatic decline on earlier years. Overall, participation in English and maths learning has fallen from over 1,000,000 in 11/12 to 803,800 in 15/16.

This really matters, because good basic skills – including digital, where 9.5 million adults lack basic skills – are essential for work, health and community life.  L&W research has shown that a core of basic skills, including literacy, numeracy, ESOL, digital, health, financial and civic capabilities, are especially important in reducing poverty, though increasing opportunities to work, improving social inclusion and active citizenship, and by supporting intergenerational learning which improves school outcomes.  Family English, maths and language learning, by the way, is down by 17.7%, from 39,700 in 15/16 to 32,700 in 16/17.

We need to invest in adult basic skills, and L&W has called for an additional £200m a year for basic skills, based around a ‘Citizen’s Skills Entitlement’, to ensure everyone has the basic skills they need by 2030.  This should take place within the context of a wider national strategy for lifelong learning.  NATECLA’s campaign for a national ESOL strategy has made a compelling case for how this could create a more joined up approach to ESOL provision – let’s extend this to other basic skills as well.  To encourage participation, basic skills learning needs to be relevant to adults’ needs and motivations, so it will be key to ensure – via the current Department for Education and Ofqual consultations – that the reformed Functional Skills English and Maths qualifications retain sufficient flexibility and the appropriate subject content to do so.

Alongside this, it’s also important to understand the reasons behind declining participation in adult basic skills learning.  Is it simply down to reduced funding?  Or are there other factors involved?  For example, amidst recent reports of an Adult Education Budget underspend, ESOL providers tell us that restrictive eligibility criteria make it challenging to enrol learners who are otherwise keen to participate.  Do we need a better understanding of who is not participating, in order target existing resources more effectively?  Is there a need to revitalise approaches to outreach and engagement, and develop new ways of enabling learners to participate?  These issues are currently the focus of a L&W project examining issues in basic skills participation.  If you’d like to have your say in this, please contact Alex Stevenson at alex.stevenson@learningandwork.org.uk