The 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies are among the best sources of information that we have about the role of literacy and numeracy in adult lives. Through their capacity to trace life back to birth, we are able to uncover the history of experience and circumstances that lie behind poor skills in adulthood and their consequences for life chances and adult functioning.
The first report of results from our age 34 survey of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), reported in New Light on Literacy and Numeracy (Bynner and Parsons, 2006), demonstrated the strong relationship between poor basic skills and a number of disadvantaged outcomes in adult life. These were particularly evident for adults whose skills were at Entry 2 or below. Problems identified earlier, at age 21, when basic skills were also assessed, had not receded for the 34-year-olds; in fact they had, if anything, become more entrenched.
In this report we go much further in illuminating the basic skills problem, examining the lives of 34-year-olds with Entry level literacy and numeracy, with particular emphasis on adults whose skills are at Entry 2 or below. The results give a disturbing picture of limited life chances. The trajectory of disadvantage begins early, characterised by poor family circumstances, limited educational achievement and low aspirations. But it is by no means inevitable. Many individuals who start their lives on an ’exclusion path’ are of course able, through effective support at home, in the community, at school or college and in the workplace, to turn their lives round.
Solving the basic skills problem requires proper understanding of where it comes from and what its consequences are. This report supplies such information and therefore will be of great assistance to policy-makers and practitioners at every level of education and the social services. The findings need the widest possible consideration and debate.