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What works in adult basic skills? by Alex Stevenson

Alex Stevenson is Head of English, Maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute, an independent policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion. He is an executive board member at the European Association for the Education of Adults.


Learning and Work Institute (L&W) has been researching adult basic skills for a long time, and in different ways, taking forward the legacy of earlier sector bodies such as NIACE and the Basic Skills Agency. Over the years, we’ve commissioned independent national enquiries – Work, Society and Lifelong Literacy – and looked at how basic skills can be supported in different settings and for different kinds of learners, including in the armed forces, for unemployed adults and in prisons, to name a few.


The central challenge still remains: too many adults have poor literacy skills. And despite the statutory entitlement to fully-funded adult literacy provision, the numbers participating are falling. The OECD estimates that in England around nine million adults have poor basic skills, including around five million who are in work. Often, literacy needs are particularly prevalent in certain settings, and as Katy Jones notes in her Literacy100 blog earlier this year, there’s growing evidence of the scale of literacy needs amongst homeless people.

For all the research that has taken place, there’s still a need for a better understanding about how we can engage and support more adults to improve their basic skills, such as literacy – and how these solutions can be tailored for different settings, and different needs. The intersection between poor literacy skills, homelessness and other support needs is a good case in point.


The evidence on the socio-economic benefits of improved adult basic skills is sufficiently compelling to have persuaded successive Governments to keep investing in basic skills learning, through the Skills for Life strategy until 2010 and via the Adult Education Budget now. But much less is known about what really works, for example to boost recruitment, participation, persistence and achievement for specific groups. Practitioners, of course, have a huge amount of insight to contribute, and the voices of learners themselves should be amplified, and heeded where possible. Today’s policymakers and commissioners – including new decision makers in Mayoral Combined Authority areas where adult literacy funding is now devolved – increasingly require robust evidence of impact to justify policy and investment decisions. So building a high-quality evidence base is essential.


In contrast to many other areas of public policy, such as schools, education and health, adult learning currently lacks the support of a dedicated ‘what works’ research centre. L&W has argued that the creation of a What Works Centre for adult learning and skills would benefit the sector in a number of ways. It could improve the quality of evidence available to decision makers, by supporting a more systematic and structured approach across the sector to help fill in evidence gaps. In the longer term, it could commission trials and evaluations, to generate the highest quality evidence to support policy decisions. It could also support sharing of effective, evidence-based practice across the sector.


What would this mean for adult literacy? At L&W, our own What Works Unit has begun to investigate. Our evidence review identified 26 studies of literacy, numeracy, ESOL and basic digital skills which met a high standard of evidence. Notably, only five of these adopted a randomised controlled trial (RCT) methodology. This is remarkably low considering the number of RCTs that inform policy and practice in other sectors, and which are often viewed by decision makers as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence. Of course, there are concerns about whether RCT studies are an appropriate way of investigating adult literacy provision. Apart from the cost involved, RCTs may be best suited to measuring easily quantified outcomes such as qualifications or employment outcomes, rather than a more nuanced range of wider outcomes, such as improvements in health and wellbeing. Nevertheless, given the value placed on them by decision makers, RCTs can help to achieve an impact in policy, especially when implemented appropriately and sensitively. For example, a RCT on community-based English language learning highlighted the effectiveness of community provision – including language proficiency and social outcomes. Further actions and investment to support community based English language projects followed in the Government’s Integrated Communities Action Plan.


L&W’s review suggests that basic skills interventions can have a range of positive impacts on outcomes such as improved skills, confidence, employability skills and productivity. The evidence suggests that flexibility in delivery, ensuring the content is relevant to learners’ lives, referral and recruitment methods tailored to the learner cohort and partnership working between providers and agencies working with potential learners are important. It also suggests areas where less is known: blended models of online and face-to-face learning appear to work well for some, but less well for others. There is limited and variable evidence about the optimal course duration and intensity to support consolidated learning. More needs to be done to target interventions at the groups who need it most – such as homeless and vulnerably housed adults, with multiple and often complex needs – and collect robust evidence about what works. In turn, this can be used to secure helpful developments in policy.


In the future, L&W looks forward to working closely with the adult basic skills sector to strengthen the evidence base on what works in adult literacy provision, for example through evaluation of different curriculum and delivery models. We are already working with the Greater London Authority to identify effective practice in adult basic skills provision, to help shape the focus of additional investment announced by the Mayor. We are always open to opportunities to work with and support providers and other organisations to evidence the impact of what they do.

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