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'Want social mobility? Then educate parents'

Damian Hinds cares about social mobility – but he must focus on adult literacy and numeracy, writes Stephen Evans

Damian Hinds must focus on adult numeracy and literacy to boost social mobility

Damian Hinds cares about social mobility – but he must focus on adult literacy and numeracy, writes Stephen Evans

I spent yesterday morning in the Resolution Foundation’s plush basement conference room, listening to the secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, talking about social mobility. I really know how to live…

His speech focused on early years development and the home environment. But he also referred to a report he published in 2012, as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility. That identified what he described as seven key truths about social mobility. It’s well worth a read for anyone who wants to know what Mr Hinds’ priorities are going to be.

It’s clear that social mobility is something he really cares about, just like his predecessor, Justine Greening, to whom he paid tribute. Different people mean different things by social mobility. In this context, the secretary of state meant intragenerational mobility: your chances of getting on, whatever your background. Of course, an adult’s chances of getting on and overall levels of inequality matter, too. But we’ll save that for another day.

Halving the gap

But back to early years – one of those seven key truths. There are some worrying statistics about how far behind children from low-income families are before they even start school in terms of, for example, their speaking and reading skills. It’s right that the secretary of state aims to halve this gap.

Investment in early years provision is clearly an important part of doing this. But Mr Hinds is right that the home environment is key and, while being careful to avoid being accused of lecturing parents, he argued that we need to offer more advice and help.

There is, however, far too little focus on improving the literacy and numeracy of parents and adults more generally. Nine million adults have low literacy and/or numeracy, and this can often have a significant effect on their life chances. Yet, the number of adults looking to improve these basic skills has actually fallen by more than a quarter in the past five years.

We are going backwards from a low base, while other countries are going forwards from a higher base. This has massive implications for adults’ life chances, as well as economic prosperity. And it will be a key barrier to achieving Mr Hinds’ ambitions.

What can we do?

We need to invest more in literacy and numeracy for adults. In 2016, the Learning and Work Institute joined with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to call for an extra £200 million per year for adult basic skills. This is needed both to expand provision and invest more in our workforce and providers. We also need to work hard to further embed literacy and numeracy in other forms of provision, and take a fresh look at how to boost Esol (English for speakers of other languages); the government’s forthcoming strategy on this is important.

We must also find new ways to engage adults in literacy and numeracy – it’s free for those that need it, but too few come forward. Many services that previously referred people to this provision, such as those in local authorities, have been cut back.

Our record employment rate is good news, but means that a higher proportion of those who need help with basic skills are in work. We need to find new ways to engage people including through employers and trade unions, housing associations and community groups. And we need new flexible ways of learning that fit around people’s work and family life. The Learning and Work Institute has been a longstanding advocate of family learning, where parents and children can learn together. There’s lots of great examples already. Can we see a renewed emphasis on this?

Lastly, all of this needs to come together into an overall skills strategy that sets the government’s priorities into context: literacy, numeracy, Esol, apprenticeships, T levels, devolution and so on.

Increased access to learning and skills are where social mobility and economic prosperity can go hand in hand. Supporting adults to improve their essential skills must be a key pillar of both.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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