“This approach may have met the needs of the government, but it failed to meet the needs of either individual workers or their employers.”
Why did the UK government decide to invest in adult basic skills?
When Tony Blair was elected in 1997, he said he had three priorities: education, education and education. In 1998 the Blair’s government sponsored a committee led by Claus Moser, a prominent statistician, to investigate standards of adult literacy and numeracy in the UK. The committee reported in 1999 that one in five adults in the UK – about seven million people – lacked the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. Problems with numeracy were even worse. This was ‘one of the reasons for relatively low productivity in our economy, and it cramps the lives of millions of people.’ [i]
How did the government react?
The government accepted Moser’s analysis and, in 2001, launched ‘Skills for Life,’ a national strategy to improve adult basic skills. National standards were written to define competency in adult literacy, English for speakers of other languages and adult numeracy. National qualifications and official teaching curricula were created for each skill. Teachers were required to undertake new post-graduate level teaching qualifications. Then all adults who lacked school qualifications in English or maths were offered free instruction to enable them to pass a standardised test and gain the national qualification in adult literacy and/or numeracy and/or English for speakers of other languages. To date, the government has invested about £10 billion in this work.
Has this investment paid off?
It has certainly achieved three things: massively raising public awareness of adult literacy, language and numeracy; creating a professional basic skills teaching infrastructure; and enabling 2.25 million adults to gain a basic skills qualification. What it’s failed to do is establish basic skills learning at work.
What barriers have basic skills providers encountered in the workplace?
Most employers thought their own employees did not need training in literacy or numeracy. So even though the training was offered free, demand from employers was limited.
Where there was demand (e.g. English classes for migrant workers), there were practical problems. The adults most likely to benefit from basic skills learning are clustered in low-paid, low-skilled roles. They work for employers who try to minimise labour costs, including costs associated with training. As a result, many employers, even large ones, found it difficult to release more than a handful of employees to attend a class in work time. Frequently the same employee couldn’t be released two weeks in a row.
This tended to result in small classes that achieved little for the learner and were uneconomic for the learning provider.
Finally, many employers were put off by the orientation of the courses themselves, i.e. the focus on getting individuals to gain a national qualification. Employers wanted learning that related more specifically to local issues in their own organisation.
Why did the government adopt this approach?
The government invested in basic skills to improve workforce skills relative to competitor nations (USA, Germany, France etc). It needed learning that produced qualifications because that is how workforce skills are measured at policy level.
When the government consulted employers, employers said they too wanted a better qualified workforce. The government thought this signalled demand for workplace learning. Actually it just meant that employers wanted a better qualified labour market to recruit from.
Surely qualifications matter at work?
Employers use qualifications as evidence of a candidate’s suitability for a role. Qualifications have relevance only at the recruitment and selection stage of the employment cycle. Once a person is appointed, the employer’s concern shifts away from the person’s qualifications and on to the person’s performance. Employers train employees for only three reasons: competence in role; compliance with employment legislation; promotion (i.e. to enable them to take on more responsibility). The only other reason an employer invests money in staff is to motivate them – either to work harder or to stay with that particular employer.
By defining adult literacy, language and numeracy as generic (i.e. transferable), technical skills that could be transmitted by effective instruction and measured by testing, the government reinforced employers in their perception that job applicants should have acquired these skills at school.
What should the government have done?
It should have told employers that the modern workplace demands higher levels of literacy and numeracy and that it (the government) was going to fund learning providers to investigate the basic skills needs not of individual workers, but of organisations; and then support organisations to address those needs themselves.
Instead, the government offered a prescribed solution to a predefined problem: qualifications for employees (typically in roles that required no qualification) in order to improve the UK’s standing in OECD qualification league tables.
This approach may have met the needs of the government, but it failed to meet the needs of either individual workers or their employers.
No surprise then that all concerned found the going rough.
Das Interview führte Bettina Kleiner.
[i] Moser Group (1999) A Fresh Start DfEE, London