Skills 'failure' is too strong

13th November 2009 at 00:00

In "Why skills will not get you up and over" (FE Focus, October 30), one of the key aspects of the Skills for Life strategy was described as an "utter failure" in one respect.

Strong words to describe arguably one of the most successful educational campaigns of all time, which has succeeded in hitting all of its ambitious targets to date and raising the profile of literacy and numeracy skills immeasurably across the country.

Under attack is the causal link between those achieving a Skills for Life qualification and then getting a job or increasing earnings, as illustrated in the latest research report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

The report did, however, show that gaining Skills for Life qualifications can "improve self-esteem, their health, increase their independence and improves their ability to conduct a wide range of everyday activities". What do we want, blood?

No mention was made in the article of the longitudinal analysis of the British Cohort Study 1970, which has regularly interviewed 18,000 individuals born in 1970 (compared with the 2,000 in the BIS research report). This rich research data has suggested many positive outcomes of the Skills for Life strategy, including that "the impact of parents' basic skills on children's cognitive outcomes is positive and highly significant" (De Coulon et al, May 2008).

The BIS research dates back to 2003 and is representative of the traditional Skills for Life learners - individuals with entry-level skills attending traditional college courses. In the past six years, the world of Skills for Life has changed immeasurably, with learners improving their English and maths skills in the workplace, and through flexible, innovative delivery such as Test the City, a model pioneered and developed by City of Sunderland College and adopted by the Move On campaign.

Thousands of learners have since achieved nationally recognised qualifications in English and maths and have been empowered to train further, change careers and reassess their lives. When Test the City was established in 2003, nobody outside of education understood the new adult English and maths qualifications. Now universities, FE colleges and employers are recognising the importance of these and specifying them as entry requirements.

I suspect that research undertaken among these more recent Skills for Life learners would demonstrate a strong economic impact. And call me a cynic, but is this economic argument not a neat distraction from the fact that money for further education is being squeezed and that Skills for Life may not always be free? And I am not a lonely cynic: Lynne Sedgmore CBE, executive director of the 157 Group, agrees.

With funding decreasing in adult education as a whole, and in particular Train to Gain funding, what will become harder will be funding learners who want to improve their English and maths. When we stop doing this, that will be the real "utter failure".

Angela O'Donoghue, Principal, City of Sunderland College.

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