College principals were this week urged by MPs to share their teaching skills with schools to enable more young people to read, write, and add up efficiently.
MPs on the public accounts committee called on the Department for Education and Skills to hold an inquiry into why colleges are better than schools at basic skills teaching.
They asked colleges and other adult learning organisations to "disseminate good practice" to assist schools with English and mathematics.
The MPs' report pointed out that half the qualifications obtained as a result of the Skills for Life strategy were achieved not by the adult learners it is aimed at, but by 16 to 18-year-olds.
It said: "The department should examine what colleges and other providers are doing differently, and disseminate any good practice." The report, titled Skills for life: improving adult literacy and numeracy, said the failure of schools had caused "mission drift" in the strategy to improve adult literacy and numeracy.
It said: "The Skills for Life strategy is intended to meet the needs of adults. But a large proportion of its resources are taken up by recent school-leavers, many of whom might reasonably have been expected to gain their qualifications at school."
The MPs said that "long-standing low achievement in schools" was a significant reason why adult literacy and numeracy in the UK lags behind that of its international competitors. They said pound;3.7 billion had been spent on Skills for Life and estimated a further pound;2bn will be needed to sustain the strategy until 2010.
As FE Focus reported last December, a review of adult skills conducted by Lord Leitch revealed that 12 million adults will not have the numeracy skills expected of an average 11-year-old by 2020, even if all current targets are met.
In the report, MPs also said the quality of adult learning is too low and called for a more skilled teaching workforce. They said: "The Learning and Skills Council should assess the extent of non-qualification among practising teachers and set a date by which all the providers it funds use only qualified teachers."
The Association of Colleges said it would welcome initiatives to share good practice with schools.
Rosemary Clark, the AoC's quality manager, said: "Colleges have had such large numbers of students with Skills for Life needs that they have thought very carefully about it.
"They give their learners an initial assessment and an in-depth diagnosis of need which is monitored in regular sessions with tutors. They also provide a massive amount of support in terms of additional staff. Colleges recognised that basic skills are key to the success of their students in all other subjects. Schools have not catered for the basic skills needs of pupils in the same way."
However, the MPs' assertion that basic skills teaching is better in colleges than schools was dismissed by Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency.
"My experience is that the best teachers of literacy are in primary schools and the next best in secondary," he said. "Third, though it is not their fault, is the teaching of adults." He said many of the Skills for Life qualifications gained in colleges were by students already up to standard.
"It is the equivalent of encouraging people to get swimming certificates whether they can already swim competently or not, rather, than developing courses to teach non-swimmers to swim and using the certificate to recognise a successful outcome," he added.