5 million adults lack basic literacy and numeracy skills

29th Aug 2016

Five million adults are lacking basic reading, writing and numeracy skills essential to everyday life and being able to find and secure work, according to analysis for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) today.

It means they may struggle to carry out a number of basic tasks, ranging from writing short messages, using a cashpoint to withdraw money, being able to understand price labels on food or pay household bills.

A further 12.6 million adults lack basic digital skills – meaning they struggle to carry out tasks such as sending emails or filling out online job application forms.  JRF’s research shows the internet is considered essential by the public in an era when access to public services and good deals for essentials are increasingly found online.

JRF said the figures painted a troubling picture of people being let down by the education system or left behind in the modern economy, with little opportunity to improve their skills. It comes ahead of JRF’s strategy to solve UK poverty, which will be published next month.

Comparisons of basic skills in England to other countries shows:

  • A large proportion of young people in England are entering adulthood without the skills to get by:
  • 23% of 16-18 year olds, 17% of 19 – 24 year olds are at the lowest level of literacy (level 1 or below), compared to 19% of 55-65 year olds.
  • 29% of 16-18 year olds, 25% of 19 – 24 year olds are at the lowest level of numeracy (level 1 or below), compared to 26% of 55-65 year olds.
  • In other nations, young people significantly outperform older people. By contrast and of significant concern, older people have higher literacy and numeracy scores than young people in England:
  • For the oldest age group in the study (55 - 65), England is third in the international rankings for literacy, for the youngest age group (16-18) it is 18th.
  • England is the only country where the average literacy score of the youngest age group (16-18 years) is lower than that of the oldest age group (55-65 years).
  • On literacy, the North East, West Midlands, North West and Yorkshire and Humber fare worst on its scores. On numeracy, the North East, London, East Midlands and West Midlands had the lowest scores.
  • Overall the UK ranks 15th for numeracy and 17th for literacy among the 34 OECD countries.
  • The current basic skills training on offer is often more focussed on the qualifications people gain, and less on the outcomes such as whether they secure work, undertake further training or increase their earnings. JRF is calling for a drive to ensure all adults meet all basic skills needs, including digital skills, by 2030:
  • The scheme would see people taking training in community settings, such as night classes, greater use of online learning for those able to do so, regular sessions in community centres and churches, or employers providing the additional training in the workplace.
  • The scheme would provide tailored training where people undertake the modules they need to develop literacy, numeracy, digital and/or English language skills, alongside health and financial capabilities. The training should be grounded in the real world, related to everyday budgeting skills and financial planning.
  • To meet the 2030 target, participation rates need to double from around 100,000 people per year for literacy and numeracy to 200,000. Priority should be given to people experiencing or at risk of poverty. The scheme could help an additional 280,000 people into work by 2030.
  • Delivering this ambitious target would require refocusing the existing £200m invested on average each year in literacy and numeracy in England, plus a further £200m per year of new funding.

Katie Schmuecker, Head of Policy at JRF, said:

“In a prosperous country like Britain, everyone should have the basic skills they need to participate in society and build a career. But these shocking figures show millions of adults are being left behind in the modern economy, holding back their potential and the productivity of our businesses suffering as a result. Businesses and community groups must play a leading role in helping people learn the skills they need to be able to find work and progress into better-paid roles – but this needs to be backed by real ambition on the part of government.”

Stephen Evans, Deputy Chief Executive at Learning & Work Institute:

"Everyone needs a set of basics for life and work in modern Britain. It’s shocking that so many people lack these core capabilities. This holds back people’s life chances, businesses future success, and national prosperity. Our research for JRF should act as a clear call for a national mission to help everyone get these core skills. At Learning & Work Institute we’ve been trialling a new way to do this. The benefits of working with people and communities to tailor support and relate it to everyday life are clear: we’ve seen increased engagement in learning and community life, and savings to public services."

Figures are drawn from the Skills for Life survey from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and The international survey of adult skills 2012: adult literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills in England