Why it’s time to think differently about Entry Level English and maths

12 March 2018

Blink and you may have missed it, but recently the Department for Education published a long-awaited (well, by me, anyway) longitudinal research study into adult English and maths.  We face a huge national challenge when it comes to adult basic skills, with around 9 million adults locked out of opportunity through poor literacy or numeracy skills.   It’s not just individuals who stand to benefit from improved basic skills, but also the wider community, through enhanced civic participation, and the economy, through increased productivity.  So any new research to understand learners’ experiences of English and maths courses, and how their skills levels progress over time, is welcome.

Originally commissioned in 2013 by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the three-year study was carried out by a consortium of researchers from Kantar Public, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and Alpha Plus, with Learning and Work Institute (then NIACE) involved in the recruitment of participating providers.

Given the scale of the challenge, the headline findings from the longitudinal study of adults participating in English and maths courses are not encouraging.  According to the report, ‘there was, and remains, a large group of adults who have particularly low skills’.  A key overall finding is that learners on higher level courses (Levels 1 and 2) are more likely to make progress between the start and end of their course than those on Entry Level courses.  Not every learner made progress during over the period of the research.

It’s important to note that there is much detail and nuance in the full report, with progress for some Entry Level learners recorded during the year following their participation in learning.  But, for me, the findings raise key questions about the ways in which we approach adult literacy and numeracy provision, particularly at the Entry Level.

It’s perhaps not surprising that those with the lowest levels of skills are least well equipped to make rapid progress in learning.  We expect primary school children to reach a standard roughly equivalent to Entry Level 3 by the age of 11, after 5 years of full time education.  Adult learners, amidst busy working lives and family commitments, are expected to do the same with maybe a couple of hundred hours of part-time tuition.  Admittedly, most adults will bring some prior knowledge, skills and learning experience to the table, but nevertheless, considerable time and input is often required to consolidate skills gains and progress at the lower levels.

So it’s important that the funding and qualifications systems recognise this.  It’s often felt to be the case that, because there is ‘more content’ at Level 1 and above, qualifications at these levels require a higher number of learning hours.  But for many, a firm grasp of the most basic, underpinning Entry Level skills can take just as long, if not longer to acquire.

More positive in the report’s findings is the range of outcomes associated with English and maths learning (if not directly caused by it).  These included increased confidence and happiness, and benefits in home and work lives.  The research rightly recognises that there are many motivations for adults to participate in English and maths courses – even the desire to improve skills might not be the primary motivation.  These motivations for learning also extend beyond employment and progression to further learning, important as these are.

At Learning and Work Institute, we believe that tapping into people’s motivations and everyday concerns are an important part of engaging people into learning, particularly around literacy and numeracy.  That’s why our Citizens’ Curriculum integrates these essential skills, with other important life skills, such as digital, health, civic and financial capabilities.  Our research demonstrates the value of this approach, working with providers and learners facing the greatest disadvantaged.  We’re also working with, and learning from, our partners in Europe, to develop a new approach to Life Skills for Europe.

In the meantime, the latest updated subject content for the new Functional Skills qualifications was also recently unveiled by DfE.  We hope that the new qualifications, and the future approach to assessment and funding arrangements, will allow the flexibility to create sufficient time, and truly engaging, motivating learning, to support progression at Entry Level.  Rather than rolling out failed formulaic approaches, let’s ensure that we really get Entry Level right, and support people to become adult learners with the confidence and skills to achieve their ambitions.