New light on literacy and numeracy
John Bynner and Samantha Parsons of the Institute of Education, describe preliminary results from longitudinal research using the 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies.
An important part of the evidence considered by the Moser Committee, whose report led to the Skills for Life strategy, was drawn from basic skills data collected for the Basic Skills Agency in a 12 year programme of longitudinal research. The research focused particularly on identifying people's earlier circumstances and experiences, which were then connected with the difficulties they experienced with literacy and numeracy later in their lives.
This work was based on the 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies, known respectively as the National Child Development Study (NCDS) and the 1970 Cohort Study (BCS70). These are longitudinal studies that follow up all babies born in a single week, from their birth in the year the study began through to adulthood. The studies involve thousands of people.
We have collected and analysed new data at regular intervals throughout the lives of the cohort members. These studies look at a wide range of social and economic issues, not only literacy and numeracy, and can help to make sense of social and economic change and trends. So, when we look at adult literacy and numeracy, we can see how these issues relate to other factors in people's lives such as health and well-being, work, gender and family structures.
In 2004, as part of the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) programme, the latest surveys included new literacy and numeracy assessments (1). These were completed by all BCS70 cohort members when they were aged 34. In addition, funding from the European Social Fund (ESF) allowed the project to assess the skills of all natural or adopted children residing with the family, from a randomly selected 1 in 2 sample of cohort members. So, nearly 4,000 children up to 16 were also included in the study, giving us the opportunity not only to understand more about adults' literacy and numeracy needs but also to ask about the impact on children of their parents' literacy and numeracy skills and learning.
This article offers results from our analysis of preliminary data from the survey, based on 7,180 of the 10,000 BCS70 cohort members who were finally interviewed. The report supplies descriptive data about the cohort members' literacy and numeracy skills and attitudes, and correlates these with other aspects of people's lives. We believe these results have real significance for the future development of the Skills for Life strategy.
Self-awareness and motivation
Among those people we surveyed, there was clear evidence of continuing low awareness of, or importance attached to, basic skills difficulties. This is not surprising among adults; most of them manage their lives well and learn to cope with any difficulties that they have.
Cohort members who were at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels (entry 2 or below) were most likely to acknowledge problems with basic skills , and those who did were more likely than others (i.e. those at higher levels) to want to improve their skills. However, substantial numbers neither acknowledged any problems nor had any desire to do anything to improve their skills; 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.
In policy terms, what is particularly significant is that, once a person's awareness is triggered, interest in improvement tends to follow. The very low number of adults who report difficulties with reading, writing or numbers and have actually been on a course to help improve their skills needs to be set against the significant proportion of those who acknowledge a problem who say that they want to improve their skills. And this is most true of people with the greatest learning needs.
These are the first challenges and opportunities that the Skills for Life strategy needs to address. How to:
- stimulate awareness of problems;
- translate people's awareness into information and motivation to re-engage with learning;
- make provision available that closely matches the specific needs identified by potential learners, facing the changes needed to the system to make responsiveness mainstream.
Substantial differences in life chances, quality of life and social inclusion were evident between individual adults at or below entry 2 compared with others at higher levels of literacy and numeracy competence. Entry 2 skills were associated with lack of qualifications, poor labour market experiences and prospects, poor material and financial circumstances, poor health prospects and little social and political participation.
Gender differences were also marked in some of these relationships, including the tendency for men in their mid-30s with poor reading, writing and maths skills to lead a solitary (single) life without children. In contrast, women with the same levels of skills were also more likely to be without a partner but more typically were parents, often with large families.
Getting better and getting worse
Improvement and deterioration in literacy and numeracy performance in the assessments was found for a substantial minority of cohort members. Most 'movement' in performance was associated with numeracy, highlighting the more fluid, less ingrained nature of numerical skills. Further analysis will help to shed light on what life experiences bring about improvement or deterioration in skills.
For now, we have enough evidence to suggest that the improvement of skills between age 21 and 34 has a wider and more substantial influence on people's quality of life at age 34 than the deterioration of good skills across the same age period.
Skills may deteriorate through lack of use with little impact on life chances or quality of life. But skills enhancement is more likely to open up opportunities and improved self-confidence which is reflected in the wide range of positive life outcomes associated with it. This gives powerful support to the Moser group's analysis and Skills for Life strategy's goals of the importance of enhancing literacy and numeracy skills to achieve social inclusion.
We tested the skills of the cohort members' children, using the British Ability Scales II (BAS II). These were matched with the parents' literacy and numeracy levels. The average scores for children of parents with the poorest grasp of literacy and numeracy were markedly lower.
The gap was particularly marked between cohort member parents at entry 2, and to a lesser extent entry 3, and higher levels. The gap was also most evident for the younger rather than the older children and for parents' literacy more than numeracy. In fact for the older children there was barely any relation-ship between parents' numeracy and children's number skills.
Although much more penetrating analysis will be needed to understand the basis of intergenerational skill transfer, it seems that parent literacy and numeracy is an important part of it, especially in the case of parents whose skills are at the lowest levels.
The findings reported here establish the huge potential of the BCS70 data to enhance understanding of the consequence of poor literacy and numeracy in adult life, as well as the benefits of learning for adults and for the transfer of skills across generations. They also re-affirm many earlier findings, while recasting them in terms of the categories through which the Skills for Life strategy is delivered.
They point to the considerable disadvantage faced by adults at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels as exemplified by entry 2 and below -a disadvantage that is subsequently passed on to their children as reflected in the children's relatively poor literacy and numeracy acquisition. This is clearly an issue of inequality with profound and long-term implications.