‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’ – How the government is failing adult learners

Two new reports show that educational opportunities tend to coalesce around those who have already benefited the most from education.

Two new reports show that educational opportunities tend to coalesce around those who have already benefited the most from education

Two important reports, published this week, highlight both the intractable nature of poor literacy and numeracy in the UK and the increasingly polarised nature of our education system.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) annual ‘Education at a Glance’ report, while noting what it describes as a ‘quantum leap’ in the expansion of higher education, also reports that growth in HE has not been accompanied by a rise in literacy and numeracy skills – with only a quarter of graduates reaching the highest level of literacy skills – nor has it had significant impact on social mobility.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee report on adult literacy and numeracy, published on Tuesday to the approval of many in the education sector, has been just as positive, and calls for a national campaign and greater collaboration between government departments to ‘tackle the appallingly low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England’.

Both reports support a familiar analysis. As a country we lag substantially behind our international competitors. The OECD’s 2013 adult skills survey ranked England 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 developed countries. It also noted that many low-skilled adults were ‘trapped in a situation in which they rarely benefit from adult learning … making it even harder for these individuals to participate in learning activities’.

The facts are grim, if familiar. The committee notes the impact of poor basic skills on economic performance – true even in a country with an unusually high proportion of low-paid, low-skilled jobs.

But the consequences go deeper than that. Poor basic skills are related to poor health, low levels of political participation and intergenerational poverty. Those people who leave compulsory education without the literacy and numeracy skills necessary for full participation in society have often been labeled ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ at school and are understandably reluctant – or lack the confidence – to return to formal education.

They may prefer to learn at work or in the community but will, in most cases, find few opportunities to do so. Educational opportunities tend to coalesce around those who have already benefited the most from education. As Helena Kennedy once remarked, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed.’

The committee urges a reappraisal of the way in which government deals with the problem of poor adult basic skills and our failure, as a society, to offer second chances to those who have been failed by the education system first time around. It urges greater flexibility in funding and in the types of programme offered, calls for better screening and assessment of need, and recommends a move away from the ‘traditional, linear approach to achieving qualifications’, typified by the government’s obsession with the ‘gold standard’ of GCSE in maths and English.

There is much to welcome in this. Some of these changes, if implemented, could make a significant difference. However, turning the tide will, I suspect, require a much more substantial shift in approach, not to mention a change in the way in which we do politics.

The recent cut to funding for unionlearn, imposed in spite of the organisation’s success in engaging exactly this type of learner, is an example of the sort of short-termism typical of many of the policies implemented in the name of austerity.

At the same time, the adult skills budget has been cut by 35 per cent over five years, while the budget for community learning, protected in cash terms, has been reduced in real terms.

With funding ‘driven by the need for qualifications’ there is little incentive for stretched providers to invest time and resources in engaging the hardest-to-reach adults (who are often also those least likely to complete courses or progress). Cuts to voluntary sector funding make it harder to identify need on the ground and establish the sort of local networks necessary in making a serious impact among the most disengaged groups.

We have been talking about these issues for years, decades. Yet children continue to leave school without the basic resources they need in life. When they get older they are likely to find they are also among those adults least likely to access educational opportunity, for a complex array of reasons, ranging from low confidence to the need to work longer hours, often for less pay, to support their families.

Simply telling these people about the support available to them is unlikely to be enough.

Paul Stanistreet is a freelance journalist and editor of Adults Learning. He also blogs about education

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4 Responses to “‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’ – How the government is failing adult learners”

  1. Shirley Burnham

    As a first step, it might seem sensible not to close down or ‘divest’ a vast number of public libraries – many of which run adult literacy courses and the majority of which encourage families to Rhyme Time, Story Time with the Book Start bear, the Summer Reading Challenge and the 6-Book Challenge. Thing is, Mr Stanistreet, that the Departments for ‘Culture’ (DCMS) and Education don’t seem to talk to each other – nor do they respond to the frantic pleas of local people who are losing their access to free books, reading for pleasure and information provided by seasoned professionals. It’s a disaster that no amount of lipservice to “literacy” will ameloriate, unless challenged. Coupled with the increasing loss of school libraries, we won’t even keep the honour of coming second to last in the Table of European literacy – we’ll be at rock bottom! Please do what you can.

  2. Mike B

    I worked in Adult Education and Further Education for over 30 years and I am convinced that the effectiveness of the system relies hugely on the funding formula. A little before I retired the coalition radically altered the Learning Aims Database (the LAD). We have a proud and successful record in providing chances through AE and FE but the present government does not seem to understand this. Funding of course is limited but how it is allocated is a political decision.

  3. Dave Roberts

    I was into my forties before I got an MBA and an law degree tat I paid for myself.

  4. Guest

    Yes, rich people like you do fine. And everyone else…

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