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Literacy in the Workforce

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve standards of literacy in the workforce.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interests as listed in the register.

My Lords, we know that strong literacy skills are fundamental to people’s education and employment prospects. That is why we have taken steps to improve literacy standards for people in the workforce by embedding English into our major education and work-based training programmes. We are also providing full funding for adults to access free English courses up to the equivalent level of GCSE, supporting community and workplace programmes, and working to improve the quality of English teaching for adults.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, but 9 million adults in England suffer from poor literacy and would struggle to send a simple email or fill in a basic job application form. The CBI’s 2015 business survey shockingly showed that the problem was getting worse, not better. Some 50% of businesses reported a workforce literacy deficit, up from 40% in 2009. The Learning and Work Institute and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that an extra £200 million needs to be spent on adult literacy every year to ensure that by 2030 all adults will have sufficient basic skills. Communication, numeracy and digital skills all depend on literacy, so does the Minister agree that scaling up local literacy interventions in the 100 worst-performing constituencies, as identified by the National Literacy Trust and Experian, is a prerequisite to fulfilling the post-Brexit industrial policy? Would he agree to prioritise adult literacy—this is an important question—and provide the necessary funds to address this chronic and worsening problem?

Noble Lords: Too long!

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to highlight this important issue, which is why we are increasing funding for adult skills participation by 40% from 2015-16 to 2019-20. We have integrated English study requirements into 16-18 education, future technical routes and apprenticeships, and we are working closely with employers to ensure that courses and qualifications meet their needs. I also agree with the point the noble Baroness makes about the importance of local provision, which is what our focus on opportunity areas and the importance of a local offer is all about.

My Lords, there are also children who drop out of school before they become adequately literate but who would nevertheless really like to work. Could the Minister arrange to make apprenticeships more open to those who need to further develop their literacy skills?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point and we are doing this; for instance, the Maynard report was very focused on the issue. There has in fact been a doubling of pupils who did not have their grade C in English at 16 achieving it by 19—the number of pupils who have caught up has doubled since 2010.

My Lords, if the Government are really determined to tackle the question of literacy, can we see a more vigorous defence of our libraries as well as a more vigorous intervention in our prisons where many of our young men and women are left with deep literacy problems?

I agree entirely about the importance of books and libraries. We have seen some library closures but this is a responsibility for local authorities, and there are many good libraries. As far as prisons are concerned, the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper has committed to assessing on entry all prisoners’ education needs, including maths and English, in order to create a personalised learning plan and to focus very much on their literacy skills. I agree it is absolutely essential that we educate prisoners so that they can gain employment after their sentence.

My Lords, the Minister says he accepts that this is a major problem. Does he intend to find £250 million to address it, as was highlighted in the report?

I think that we have made significant progress. I have talked about the 40% increase in funding over the next five years. We know that the OECD told us that our 2012 school leavers were among the most illiterate and innumerate in the developed world after more than 11 years in education up to 2012. We have made considerable progress on that, which is partly what our apprenticeships and T-level reforms are all about.

Does my noble friend not think that at the root of this problem is the poor performance of teachers in many of our schools? They simply do not seem to be interested in teaching the basic skills of literacy and other subjects. Perhaps while they are at it, they could also, with benefit, teach some of their pupils how to ask a question briefly and succinctly and not stand and read it for hours on end.

On the last point, I entirely agree with my noble friend about the benefits of précis. I remember spending a lot of time at school studying précis and I am sure that many people, including civil servants, could benefit from some training on that. But I pay tribute to our hard-working teachers who have supported with enthusiasm our phonics programme, which has resulted in many more children being on track to be confident young readers, and of course we now emphasise the importance of grammar in our curriculum.

My Lords, the Minister will confirm that literacy levels are the highest they have ever been, and that is thanks to the dedication of our teachers. However, a small number of young people slip through the net and there are some enlightened employers who help their workforces to develop their literacy skills while they are at work. That not only gives them greater employability but helps with their personal confidence. Sainsbury’s is an example of a company which does that. Will the Minister look at how other companies might be involved in similar schemes?

The noble Lord is quite right and is always well informed on this. We now have a higher proportion of young people than ever leaving compulsory education with a C or equivalent in English. We also work with organisations such as Unionlearn and the Learning and Work Institute to promote literacy training for people in the workplace. But I shall certainly look at the points he has made and I would be delighted to discuss them with him further.