The Entry level debate
Ursula Howard introduces the debate and emphasises the social agenda of the Skills for Life strategy.
What would the modern-day equivalent of the man (sic) on the Clapham omnibus make of the discussion on Entry level learners that fills the next six pages of this magazine?
Parts of the discussion must be totally bewildering to those outside the Skills for Life community. Pre-entry and Entry 1, 2 and 3? ESOL? LLN? Only the cognoscenti understand these terms. Nevertheless, what follows is much more progressive educationally and socially than those official labels suggest.
This important discussion was triggered by genuinely ground-breaking research by John Bynner and Samantha Parsons (see email forum). It revealed that adults with literacy and numeracy skills at or below Entry 2 are even more disadvantaged than had been thought. Not only do they find it much harder to get jobs, they are more prone to health and psychological problems than their peers and are more likely to suffer multiple social disadvantages.
A survey of more than 7,000 adults included in the 1970 British Birth Cohort Study showed that men with the lowest basic skills are more likely to lead a solitary life. Women with low-level skills are also more likely to be without a partner but often have large families.
The average literacy and numeracy scores of their children are also markedly
lower. As Bynner and Parsons said, this is therefore 'an issue of inequality with
profound and long-term implications'.
However, the most disadvantaged adults may not recognise their learning needs. 'Substantial numbers neither acknowledged any problems nor had any desire to do anything to improve their skills', the researchers said. 'No more than 3 per cent reported they had been on a course to help them improve their reading, writing or number and maths calculations'.
The Government is aware of this longstanding problem and in 2001 launched its hugely ambitious and successful Skills for Life strategy. As Skills Minister Bill Rammell has said, this represents the 'best opportunity to tackle our historic skills weakness and to achieve economic and social benefits for all'. Many thousands more adults are in learning now than five years ago. All over the country, lives are being changed for the better.
However, we have also seen that numerical educational achievement targets can unwittingly distort priorities. Messages from the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council can also be misunderstood at local level- the 'Chinese whispers' effect.
Adults with the greatest needs may not be targeted by some learning providers because they cannot gain a national qualification relatively quickly. Learners who can easily reach a target level may be more attractive to providers than adults with a history of educational failure, or those who use learning simply to maintain their existing skill levels. There have consequently been press reports of further education colleges turning away people who are eager to join Entry 1 and 2 courses - particularly in ESOL.
Much has been said about the so-called '80/20 balance' of provision and its relationship to the Skills for Life target, which starts with assessment at Entry level 3. Let's remember that the 80 per cent also includes Entry levels 1 and 2, where learners take nationally recognised qualifications, but we clearly need to offer even more help to those at most risk of social exclusion. This is what Skills for Life has always intended to do - but powerful economic arguments and the logic of targets sometimes obscures the Government's social and emancipatory agendas.
This reflect feature is, first and foremost, a discussion about how best to work with learners. Practitioners who are more concerned with the pedagogical and motivational challenges posed by Entry level learners will also find much to interest them in these pages.
Our discussants suggest how teachers can support learners' journeys from Entry levels 1 to 3 and beyond. They emphasise the importance of seeing each learner as a unique individual with individual strengths and individual aspirations. Most importantly, they display a deep understanding and respect for adults with the greatest learning needs.
As Jan Eldred of NIACE says in her contribution which will doubtless be quoted often in the future: 'Entry level literacy learners are not Entry level people'.
Ursula Howard is director of the NRDC.