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Are basic skills and benefits a motivational combination?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital29 January 2014

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)
After three years away from the front line of government policy, adult literacy and numeracy practitioners suddenly had the spotlights turned on them again last week.
Was I the only one taken aback when Rachel Reeves, using a speech to the IPPR think-tank, announced that the next Labour Government would make it “a new requirement for jobseekers to take training if they do not meet basic standards of maths, English and IT – training they will be required to take up alongside their jobsearch, or lose their benefits”? Suddenly the light is shining very brightly at post-16 literacy and numeracy provision.
Let us leave aside the politics of the proposal, so the questions of where the money is going to come from, how long the courses will be, how will they will be monitored and assessed can be sidestepped (though it is understandable that both the Association of Colleges and teaching unions’ first reactions were to ask about the funding). Instead, I would like to spend a moment or two considering the educational benefits of this approach.
It is likely that many of the cohort of learners to be picked up by this initiative will be people who are no strangers to English and mathematics classes. How are we going to get through to them this time what all the years of compulsory school have failed to achieve? A good start is that if we assume they receive no benefits if they don’t turn up for sessions, attendance is likely to be reasonably good. But is that sufficient? Is just ‘turning up’ enough?
We do not know who will deliver these courses and what the qualification will be. But if the courses are going to follow the adult skills curriculum, rather than the GCSE one, and are taught by FE teachers used to working with adults and who will assume they have an amount of knowledge already – rather than just starting from scratch yet again – this will certainly have a positive impact.
But as all teachers know, motivation is the fundamental issue. Does the learner doing this course really want to achieve this time round? If they do, then their likelihood of success will be raised significantly. If they are just there because they have to be, I think it unlikely that this initiative will make a great deal of difference.
That said, learners doing basic skills because they ‘have to’ can achieve impressively. This was our surprise finding when doing a three-year longitudinal study into basic skills and the armed forces. The young men and women we were following, who came from all three forces, were just those who hadn’t really enjoyed or succeeded at school. Yet when the ‘literacy and numeracy’ moment in their training arrived, they trooped off to do two or three weeks of intensive study…. and succeeded.
I was initially sceptical. One tutor told me she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had failed Level 1 literacy, another talked of those failing numeracy as barely a handful out of hundreds. Wherever we went the story was the same; achievement rates that most FE Colleges could only dream of. Our conclusion was that even if the rookie ratings, soldiers and airmen didn’t necessarily care about the qualification themselves, they knew the Services did. They knew they were expected to pass and that they needed the qualification for promotion. So they went to the lessons, did the work and passed the test.
So interested were BIS in this finding that our colleagues at NIACE, in cooperation with The Manchester College, have since organised a pilot scheme in a group of prisons, running short, intensive sessions on literacy and numeracy. Results suggest that in numeracy at least, success rates have improved significantly in that most difficult of contexts.
I don’t think it is just ‘having to turn up’ however, that is the key; otherwise compulsory education would lead to everyone getting their eight A*s at GCSE. The important thing for me is expectations; if teachers and tutors, parents and peers expect a learner to pass, if employers are going to value the award, then their chances of doing so are that much improved.
So while the success of this policy is likely to depend on the type of course on offer and who teaches it, the key will be whether the Job Seekers’ Allowance claimants believe the qualification they are doing will help them get a job, and whether those around them believe they can succeed.

OECD Skills Survey: the adult learning perspective

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 November 2013

Brian Creese & colleagues from NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy, language and numeracy)
The results of last month’s OECD Survey received considerable coverage in the UK media. However, despite it being a survey of adult skills, with a focus on lifelong learning and the skills of the workforce, the reporting has focused entirely on schools:
Schools go backwards (Daily Mail)

OECD: English school leavers ‘among least literate and numerate in the developed world (Daily Telegraph)
England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills (The Guardian)
The slightly hysterical reactions appear to have been sparked off by the finding that not only are England’s 16 to 24-year-olds falling behind their Asian and European counterparts in literacy and numeracy but that, as the Daily Mail put it: “England  is the only developed country producing school leavers who are worse at maths and reading than their grandparents.” Overall England came 22nd out of 24 countries for the reading skills of its young people and 21st for maths. These are worrying figures. However, the focus placed on schools by the media and by politicians alike misses the point that improving schools will not help those who are beyond school age.
So what does the report actually say? It suggests that the skills levels nations require to compete in the global economy continue to rise, that adults lose their skills with time unless they actually use them, that immigrants do not magically learn the home language without help and that in all countries surveyed, at least 10% of adults lack the most basic of computer skills.
In the UK social background has a major impact on adults’ basic skills. Poor skills are associated with poor outcomes in most measures of wellbeing, as well as in income. It doesn’t have to be that way. Countries such as Austria, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden manage to combine above average performance in the survey with high levels of social equality.
For those of us who work with adult learners, the report’s key recommendations reiterate what we already know about the need to foster lifelong, skills-oriented learning. In order to continue to compete in a changing environment, lifelong learning must be made accessible to all. This, the report suggests, requires concerted engagement with Government, employers and employees as well as parents and students for adults to be able to constantly improve and update their skills over the lifecourse in order to maximise their economic and social outcomes.
Promoting education to all adults is vital for the economic and social future or our nation, but since those most likely to undertake more education are those who had the highest levels of education in the first place, Governments need to pursue active and positive steps to encourage those with poorer skills to re-enter education as adults in order to escape from the vicious cycle of low skills leading to low income. However, the survey also makes it clear that lifelong learning opportunities are relevant to workers in both high and low-skilled occupations and regardless of their level of initial education.
However good our schools become there will always be a need for adult education. Not everyone can succeed at school and even those who do will need to learn new skills and maintain those that they have. It’s easy for the media to blame schools and those who set schools policy for England’s poor performance in international comparative surveys; it’s much harder to develop effective adult skills policies that provide us with a competitive workforce and address issues of social justice.