Reflecting on the Parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy

The Parliamentary Select Committee for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently looking into adult literacy and numeracy. They have invited written submissions, questioned witnesses, and visited adult learners in a college and a prison.

This represents quite a remarkable level of public attention for a part of the education system that rarely enjoys centre stage. And its work is likely also to enjoy a high profile given the level of public concern over the English results in the latest OECD adult skills survey, about which I blogged at the time.

Having attended one morning of the Committee’s public sessions, where I gave evidence on behalf of Scotland’s Learning Partnership, I was struck by its seriousness and potential value for adult learners. Most of those who gave evidence alongside me worked for providers, often with strong special interests in a particular sub group of provision. This was enormously informative, even for someone like me who has worked in adult learning for some decades. It was striking that learners’ voices were missing from the august Westminster committee room in which we met.

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage, Conservative MP for Gosport, has a track record of interest in and support for adult literacy, and she co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on maths and numeracy. She set the inquiry in motion, and she will undoutbedly influence its final report. Her questioning of witnesses is thoughtful and informed, and reveals a particular interest in the role of volunteer tutors in helping to support basic skills learners.

I have developed considerable respect for Ms Dinenage, and I also very much welcome greater encouragement and support for those who work with adult learners on a voluntary basis. People who support peer learning in such contexts as prisons, men’s sheds, workplaces, community groups or parent and toddler groups are often likely to achieve much more than formal tuition in a less naturalistic setting.

But we can’t rely on volunteering on its own. It is too hit and miss: some groups may be well served by volunteers, others not; some volunteers may be highly competent, others not; some volunteers may know how to support progression, others not. So we certainly need training for voluntary tutors, and we need to remember that their own learning needs will develop over time. Volunteer tutoring works best when it is part of a strong lifelong learning system.

Another Conservative member of the Committee took the view that any problem with adult literacy and numeracy was the fault of what he calls ‘the educatioal establishment’. Brian Binley MP pursued a number of witnesses in the first part of the session (after which he left). The point that he wished to make was that the UK was the only country in the survey in which young adults performed more poorly than older adults, and this must therefore reflect badly on the ‘educational establishment’ that had taught these young adults as children.

Mr Binloey is no enemy of adult learning; on the contrary, he has spoken publicly and warmly of his own adult learning at the hands of the Workers Educational Association. Of course he was over-simplifying when he spoke about the ‘educational establishment’; he didn’t define what he meant by ‘the educational establishment’, he didn’t show much interest in precisely which young adults had been ‘let down badly’ by it, and he didn’t recognise that some parts of our education system perform extremely well by international standards. But he still has a point.

England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales took no part) were indeed the only countries in the OECD adult skills survey where the younger generation of adults did less well than the older generation. This is a highly unusual result – normally, improvements in schooling mean that the young invariably do better than the old, even in countries where everyone believes that the young of today are useless wastrels. So the distinctive UK pattern requires explanation.

So far, the only explanation on offer has been the Conservatives’ knee-jerk response – namely, that the New Labour government made a complete hash of the schools system. Again, they are politicians, and saying that the last government messed things up is their job. But what is surprising to me is the complete silence of Britain’s educational research community on this topic – a research community, remember, that is totally dominated by specialists on schools and school teachers. I would dearly love to see one of them take a hard, close look at the OECD results, and tell us what (if anything) they mean.

Let me draw one obvious conclusion from this extraordinary finding. What it means is that a large group of young adults is exposed to the scarring effects of recession, while being equipped with relatively weak basic skills. This is a recipe for disaster, and I hope that the Select Committee’s report will include specific proposals for tackling this challenge as a matter of urgency.

Above all, I hope that practitioners and learners contact the Committee to share their views, expertise and experiences. While the Committee’s report is unlikely to lead to specific policy changes, it will certainly influence the climate of ideas in which policy is discussed. With an election scheduled for May 2015, the Committee’s recommendations will face a new Government. A lively response from the field can only help ensure that adult literacies are a priority.