Basic skills vital for the home and community as well as the workplace, researchers say

Child moving houseCurrent coalition government policies that are designed to improve adults’ literacy and numeracy skills are overly focused on the world of work, according to two leading researchers in this field.

Although the government is rightly concerned about the employability and efficiency of adults with poor literacy and numeracy, it must not overlook the role of basic skills in family and community life, say Professor John Bynner and Dr Sam Parsons, of the Institute of Education, University of London.

“Basic skills are especially important for effective parenting as they enable adults to support their children during their pre-school and primary years,” they said. “We found that the vocabulary scores of three-year-olds with parents who had very low skills levels were 20 per cent below those of three-year-olds with parents educated to GCSE A* to C level. There was also a substantial gap between these two groups in reading and spelling at age six and seven.”

The researchers, who had a significant impact on the basic skills policies of the previous government, added that there was an unmet demand for literacy and numeracy classes specifically aimed at parents.

“That’s regrettable because this is one of the best ways of motivating adults to attend basic skills classes,” they said. “Almost all parents want to help their children do well at school so such classes can create a virtuous circle of learning achievement for both parents and children.”

Bynner and Parsons spent 18 years investigating adult literacy and numeracy with the aid of data gathered by the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study. The first study is tracking the lives of British adults born in one week in 1958 while the second study is following adults born in one week in 1970. Both studies are managed by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

One of the researchers’ conclusions is that poor basic skills can make even “everyday functioning” — shopping and dealing with tradesmen, for example – extremely difficult. Inadequate literacy and numeracy levels also inhibit adults’ community involvement, they say, as people with low skills are less likely to join social groups or vote.

“The government should therefore bear in mind that its ‘Big Society’ and ‘One Nation’ aspirations, and other core elements of social inclusion and cohesion, would benefit from basic skills investment,” Bynner and Parsons said, in a statement timed to coincide with Adult Learners’ Week.

The researchers, however, believe that the coalition government is right to see digital skills as the essential contemporary counterpart to literacy and numeracy. “Our comparative research on adult basic skills in the US and UK showed that improving IT skills actually has a more substantial effect on literacy skills and employability than the other way round,” they pointed out.