A multi-million pound government drive to boost literacy and numeracy skills among the workforce has not led to any significant improvements for individuals or the companies taking part, contrary to what policymakers believe.
These are the findings of the UK's first study of basic skills learning in the workplace, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
The Skills for Life programme has cost pound;5 billion in England alone, with comparable spending in the other home nations. It is based on the assumption that an improvement in literacy and numeracy will increase people's earnings potential, as well as their productivity and employability.
But, according to Alison Wolf of King's College London, who led the three- year study, workplace basic skills courses are having little impact. "It is clear from our research that policymakers are mistaken in expecting immediate and major effects on productivity," she says.
Professor Wolf believes that one of the main reasons for the failure of the initiative is that courses were simply not long enough. While schoolchildren received over 200 hours of direct instruction every term, over many years, participants on the Skills for Life courses received, on average, a total of 30 hours' teaching.
The study, which received over pound;800,000 in ESRC funding, also showed that the workplace does not support formal learning. Private and public-sector organisations find it hard to fit classes in with work patterns, and they are unable to provide the long-term stability necessary for effective learning.
Indeed, the study finds that the Skills for Life strategy has left no permanent legacy of workplace training. None of the employers who received free on-site courses continued them after government funding ended. "If the productivity gains were as obvious as the Government has claimed, this would be very short-sighted of employers," says Professor Wolf. "In fact, there were no big obvious gains."
A year after students had taken the Skills for Life course, statistically there were no significant improvements in literacy for English-speaking employees. Some of those, who went on to develop their skills as part of their normal job, did improve, while participants whose work continued to involve minimal use of literacy did not.
Professor Wolf notes that people's jobs can be far more important for boosting literacy skills than a short formal course.
However, the study also found that employers were not particularly concerned about their employees' literacy skills, and increased productivity was not something that either employers or learners expected.
Instead, one of the broader benefits of the course was that it boosted workers' confidence. A significant number of participants went on to do further courses. More than half said that they read more, and three quarters felt differently about education as a result of the course.
"Both adult learners and their employers have a far more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the workplace than does the Skills for Life strategy," Professor Wolf concludes. "Ministers need to realise that attending a short course, or collecting a certificate, does not mean that people have necessarily learned anything."
The project explored the impact on learners and their organisations of government-funded workplace programmes designed to increase literacy skills. It included 567 learners, 10 per cent of them in Scotland, in 53 workplaces across several industries throughout the UK. The reading and writing skills of participants were tested at the start of their courses, one year on and two years later.
Professor Wolf told The TESS there were no differences in the progress of learners between England and Scotland. But she conceded that the small size of the Scottish sample might have disguised any contrasts.