David Lammy MP, Minister for Skills in the Department for Innovation,Universities and Skills, writes for reflect
The ability to read and write is so essential to modern life that anyone who struggles with basic skills is at a huge disadvantage - at work, in the supermarket, as a parent, as a citizen. In our knowledge economy, which places a premium on high-level skills, we cannot afford to have anyone of working age in this position.
Since 2001, we have invested £5 billion in Skills for Life. As a result, 5.7 million adult learners have improved their skills on 12 million courses - not only in FE colleges, but in waste management sites and bus depots, in libraries and union learning centres.
In June, I was delighted to announce that over 2.25 million adults have now gained first qualifications, meaning we have met our 2010 target two years early. These figures are a tribute to the efforts of teachers, colleges, and the unions, whose dedication to engaging hard-to-reach learners, expanding work-based training and improving teaching has been recognised by the National Audit Office.
More than that, these figures reflect a transformation in the prospects of learners themselves - men and women who can now help their children with their homework, perform more effectively at work, and are more likely to gain further qualifications.
Challenges and priorities
But let's not underestimate the challenges still ahead of us. An estimated 5.2 million people in England aged between 16 and 65 would fail GCSE English. Around 6.8 million lack the numeracy skills expected of an 11-year-old. There's clearly much more for us to do, and I want to highlight three priorities for the coming years.
The first involves remaining focused on reaching the Government's target for 95% of adults to have functional literacy and numeracy skills by 2020. Between now and 2011, we want an additional 597,000 adults to achieve a first literacy qualification (at Level 1 or above), and 390,000 to achieve a first numeracy qualification (at Entry Level 3 or above). After 2011, the targets become even more demanding, so it's vital that we increase participation rates through such reforms as skills accounts, the forthcoming Adult Advancement and Careers Service, and through embedding Skills for Life in other learning - especially vocational education.
Second, we must continue working closely with employers to identify and address basic skills needs. More than 54,000 learners have already started a Skills for Life programme through Train to Gain - at a time and a place convenient for them and their employers. Over 29,000 learners have achieved a qualification, fully funded by the Government. We have now extended eligibility for Skills for Life support to all employees with basic skills needs, irrespective of prior qualifications, while the right to request time to train should be a powerful lever for increasing demand.
By 2011, we expect Train to Gain to support more than 70,000 Skills for Life learners each year. Finally, we require a special effort to make progress on numeracy and tackle the cultural acceptance of poor mathematical skills in this country.
For the current spending reviewperiod, we have set separate literacy and numeracy targets. We will expect all providers to screen their literacy students for numeracy skills needs.We have extended existing incentive schemes, including bursaries and 'golden hellos', to attract more specialised numeracy teachers.
And we will build on the success of the 'In Our Hands' advertising campaign to encourage more adults to overcome their fears about returning to learning. Meeting these various priorities won't be easy, but all the research conducted by the NRDC has been unambiguous about the benefits of adult basic skills - for job prospects, earning potential, and the educational attainment of children.
All of us - teachers and union learning reps, college principals and government ministers - must join forces as never before to help people unlock their own latent talent and realise their ambitions.
David Lammy MP is Minister for Skills in DIUS* with responsibility for the Commission for Employment and Skills, Leitch implementation, Train to Gain, Skills Academies, Skills for Life and apprenticeships. www.davidlammy.co.uk