When in August chancellor Sajid Javid pledged £400m to fund 16- to 19-year-olds in FE, it was warmly welcomed by the sector. Anything to start the funding ball rolling. But as David Hughes from the Association of Colleges pointed out, it still left England below all other OECD countries in providing financial support for young people.
As for adult education, there was not one mention, despite evidence in a World Literacy Foundation report last year that England is losing £36bn pa because up to 25% of working-age adults – an estimated 9 million – cannot read and write properly. Meanwhile, the charity, National Numeracy, published its report, Numerate Nation? this summer to reveal 56% of working-age adults had the numeracy level expected of a primary school pupil!
It’s taken an election to kick-start FE funding
The fact that funding has been slashed by 45% since 2009-10 and it has taken an election plus a huge amount of sector lobbying to kick-start any sort of renewed government support for FE, suggests getting our workforce up to speed in literacy and numeracy may remain a low government priority despite our as yet uncertain EU departure highlighting a desperate need for a more skilled labour force.
FE literacy and numeracy teachers even 10 years ago were supported by a strong, government-backed initiative called Skills for Life – the national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills. But a colleague told me the other day there is nothing for teachers now. Yes, the strategy’s materials are still up on the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) website but they have not been revamped. At one time teachers took it for granted they could go on training courses, join a local network, get mentor support and have access to new materials. Now there is very little if any continuing professional development for adult literacy teachers; functional skills for young people is the government’s priority. My colleague was pretty despondent that nobody cared about it and that dedicated teachers received minimal support.
Few people want to admit they’re illiterate
The 800,000 people taking literacy/numeracy classes in 2010 has now halved to 400,000. The result is that around 9 million adults, many of them in work, are facing literacy and numeracy problems. What’s more, building up literacy classes, in particular, is an uphill struggle. Few people want to admit they have a literacy issue, there’s no official government push to encourage them to attend courses, and many of those lecturers doing their best to offer literacy courses lack the resources to do the job properly.
Blame austerity, Brexit and a government with a constant narrow focus on young people. Adult learners also used to study for a vocational qualification at the same time as the costs on literacy: my colleague would teach them, say, the theory of grammar which they’d then practise on their vocational course. Equally, in numeracy classes, he might explain dimensions and then the students would work on cubes and blocks on, say, a carpentry course. College departments used to collaborate but nowadays he said he was not even told if his students were on another course. The cross-departmental collaboration was no longer on the agenda.
Teachers need CPD to do a proper job
Level 2 learners are also not helped by a lack of any real ladder to help them progress; the government is channelling all its main resources into level 3 courses and qualifications. There is still some specific funding for literacy and numeracy although not enough to offer teachers the CPD they need to do a proper job. Equally, recruitment has been made more difficult by former grants for tuition fees being replaced by loans.
It’s a huge issue. The envelope for adult education needs to be much larger and teaching time should be expanded. Literacy students now only get two hours a week whereas before it was seven. There is also a need to campaign and arrest the decline of student numbers on such courses.
Improved literacy and numeracy key to higher productivity
How can colleges bring about change? Up until now, many campaigners calling for improved literacy and numeracy levels have been emphasising the dramatic fall in student numbers, but another tack should surely be backing the upskilling and development of the teachers we do have. After the government’s much-publicised funding of functional skills training, we need to lobby MPs to invest in CPD for adult literacy/numeracy teachers through the ETF or some other organisation.
Research across the world constantly bangs out the message that if you have poor literacy and numeracy skills there is a direct link with poor levels of productivity – something Brits are always complaining about and comparing themselves to Germany.
The curse of Brexit we cannot accept
Alarmingly, Brexit could be making things worse. The other day I was pointing out the lack of provision in the government’s skills plan and got a counter-argument from a local council member that I hadn’t heard for years. “We need cleaners, don’t we? Your learners will get jobs so who will do our cleaning?” Brexit is allowing people to say things like that. Diabolical, yes. But something we have to accept? No.