What does pound;9bn get you? One in 4 can't figure it out

Numeracy falls despite adult skills investment, survey finds

Since the first Skills for Life survey in 2003, more than pound;9 billion has been spent on improving basic literacy and numeracy among adults. One might reasonably assume, therefore, that national standards would have risen accordingly.

But, eight years on, the second Skills for Life survey has revealed a mixed picture. There has been considerable improvement, the report's authors claim, in literacy: of the 16 to 65-year-olds surveyed, 56.5 per cent achieved a level 2 or above score, equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C. This figure is up more than a quarter on the 44.2 per cent figure recorded in 2003.

But this hardly amounts to grounds for effusive self-congratulation. The statistics also show that 15 per cent of respondents performed at entry level 3 or below; in layman's terms, the literacy of more than five million adults is no better than the level expected of a child aged between nine and 11. In this respect, the marginal improvement since 2003 is "not statistically significant", the report concludes.

What are clearly significant, however, are the figures for numeracy: 76.3 per cent of the adults surveyed achieved entry level 3 - a 2.3 per cent drop on eight years ago. And, despite the billions of pounds of investment, 17 million adults have maths skills that are no better than those of a primary school child.

Even more alarming is the revelation that 2.3 million people in England were at entry level 1 or below - the level of attainment for five to seven-year-olds - in numeracy, while 1.7 million were at this stage for literacy. For millions of people, it seems, simple, everyday tasks are anything but straightforward.

"Adults with skills below entry level 3 may not be able to understand price labels on pre-packaged food or pay household bills," the report said.

"We have far too many people with very poor basic skills in this country and the system isn't working for them," said Carol Taylor, director for research and development at adult learning body Niace. While praising the "welcome" rise in the proportion of adults working at level 2 in literacy, she warned that other findings of the report were serious cause for concern.

"It's alarming that 15 per cent of the adult population are performing at entry level 3 or below in literacy, and 24 per cent in numeracy at entry level 2 or below," Ms Taylor added. "Put simply, around one in six of the adult population has difficulty with aspects of reading and writing, which means they are seriously disadvantaged as employees, citizens and parents. And around one in four struggles with the basics of numeracy - a skill which can have a greater impact on life chances than literacy."

Niace is calling for a special fund to be set up to help provide training for adults with the lowest skills. Ms Taylor said that focus on qualifications and results has encouraged providers to take an approach of "plucking only the low hanging fruit" by targeting learners who they are confident they can help reach test standards - and reap the resulting funding benefits from their high success rates.

This concern is shared by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which last week announced plans to reform the funding structure for basic skills training. It has put forward plans for a pilot scheme, in which providers that take on students who start with a lower skills base would reap greater financial reward.

Whether this will bring serious benefits for the least skilled members of society remains to be seen, particularly given that no extra funding is being made available. With the previously steady flow of cash for training being reduced to a trickle, and ministers' demands for a better return from their investment getting ever louder, the pressure on providers to deliver more for less has never been greater.

7,000 16 to 65-year-olds surveyed

78.6% - Achieved entry level 3 numeracy in 2003

76.3% - Achieved entry level 3 numeracy in 2011

44.2% - Achieved level 2 literacy in 2003

56.5% - Achieved level 2 literacy in 2011

62% - Attained a higher level in literacy than numeracy in 2011

10% - Attained a higher level in numeracy than literacy in 2011.

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