Treasury economists are assessing the impact of the pound;3.7 billion invested int the Skills for Life strategy over the past four years. This may sound like big money but it works out at just pound;58 a year for each of the 16 million adults with inadequate literacy and numeracy for a 21st-century economy.
The Public Accounts Committee recently said 2.4m adults have already improved, and 750,000 can demonstrate this through qualifications. However, half the qualifications were achieved by young people who failed to reach that level at school, and the committee recommended that schools should learn from the successful practice of colleges and other providers.
In November, the PAC was told by the Adult Learning Inspectorate and the Office for Standards in Education chief David Bell, now Department for Education and Skills permanent secretary, that while the Skills for Life strategy was a qualified success, more specialist teachers and better-qualified vocational trainers were needed to improve teaching standards.
The following month, the ALI chief inspector's report appeared initially to be more critical. In a well-publicised remark David Sherlock, chief inspector, referring to all adult literacy and numeracy provision, said:
"There has been a depressing lack of improvement, and a failure over the past four years, despite an extraordinary injection of funds."
In fact, in colleges, where most students are taught, literacy and numeracy teaching has improved. In 2003-4 one in five colleges was unsatisfactory in these subjects, and a third unsatisfactory in English as a second language.
In 2004-5, fewer than one college in 10 was unsatisfactory, and four in 10 were particularly good.
To improve quality while achieving substantial increases in the number of students is impressive. However, Ofsted found there was still too much unsatisfactory teaching, and graded one lesson in six as inadequate.
Teacher development is essential.
The picture is bleaker outside the general FE sector, particularly in prison education, in specialist provision for disabled people, and in JobcentrePlus for unemployed people.
This prompted ALI's chief inspector to suggest targeting resources at the most disadvantaged, rather than trying to bring the majority's literacy and numeracy ability up to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), as expected by most business leaders.
Providing good learning is particularly complex in prisons and in JobcentrePlus. Few learners choose to be there, and teachers have little control over the composition of their classes, as learners of all levels join and leave courses every week. Learning is not the prime aim either of JobcentrePlus or of the Prison Service, and its management is generally weak.
David Sherlock wrote (FE Focus, January 13) that the messages of his annual report have been distorted beyond his recognition. The successes in work-based learning have not been widely reported. Most apprentices did not achieve good GCSEs in English or maths at school and have long struggled with the literacy and numeracy requirements of their courses.
To complete their full apprenticeship, they need to attain a good GCSE standard and pass key skills tests at level 2. Since the launch of the Skills for Life strategy, trainers have started teaching their young apprentices the literacy and numeracy they failed to grasp at school.
The sector has become attuned to learning rather than simply assessment and, in Mr Sherlock's words, "has come of age". Students are now passing their key skills tests, known as communication and application of number.
Mr Bell said the single most important factor in raising the standards of teaching and learning is good teacher training and development.
The ALI annual report came to the same conclusion, pointing out that the Skills for Life strategy has not done enough to address the shortage of specialist literacy, numeracy and language teachers, or of vocational skills trainers.
Both inspectorates have noted that literacy and numeracy teaching is often most effective when integrated with vocational or other learning. But the 2005 Ofsted report Skills for Life in Colleges - one year on, suggested that far too many college vocational lecturers have inadequate literacy and numeracy themselves.
The PAC recommends that funds are well focused and targeted. The professional development of the workforce throughout this vital aspect of the learning and skills sector must be the key focus.
The Chancellor in his Budget agreed and the FE white paper emphasised the message. the new Quality Improvement Agency will set out some steps towards achieving this.
Richard Goss is head of post-16 learning and skills at CfBT, the educational trust