How can we drive up essential skills participation? Looking at other countries’ strategies to illuminate best practice.

By Hazel Klenk, Research Manager


19 10 2022


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Too many people in the UK do not have the literacy, numeracy, language and digital skills they need to get on in life. Yet, the number of adults participating in learning has fallen significantly over the past decade. In addition, the Government have halved the Adult Education Budget from 2011-12 to 2019-20, with funding falling from £2.8 billion to £1.5 billion.

Basic skills needs graphic


Source: Getting the basics right: The case for action on adult basic skills

The Skills for Life Alliance – convened by Learning and Work Institute (L&W) and HOLEX and formed in 2021 – is a cross-sector expert group working to drive adult essential skills up the national policy agenda. The Alliance seeks to explore current drivers of participation and to identify changes to policy and practice that could make a difference to the numbers of adults taking part in literacy and numeracy learning. Today as part of the Alliance’s work, we’ve launched a “Review of National Strategies for Adult Basic Skills”. The report looks at four countries – Australia, Germany, Norway and Switzerland – where there is a distinct strategic focus on adult basic skills, to help shed light on ways in which there may be scope to strengthen and develop adult basic skills policy in England.

They key lessons are:

Policy implementation

In England, the Adult Education Budget includes an entitlement to fully funded literacy and numeracy training up to Level 2 for any adult who needs it. This is a critically important policy commitment and one that stands in contrast to many other countries where basic skills provision is often project-funded which undermines continuity. Free provision is helpful in increasing participation but not sufficient on its own. In Australia and Switzerland, dedicated basic skills strategies and action plans signal political commitment to increasing participation and supporting more adults to improve their basic skills. In Germany, funding and support have also been dedicated to awareness-raising campaigns.

Holistic approach

Across the four countries, there is broad consensus that basic skills means literacy, language, numeracy and digital. Germany’s strategy for example explicitly includes areas such as health and financial literacy too. There are examples across the countries of taking a holistic approach to policy development, drawing in a range of stakeholders (including national and local government, learning providers and third sector organisations) with an interest in improving literacy and numeracy at all levels.

The approach taken by the four countries also integrates basic skills into the wider skills and lifelong learning system, helping to raise its profile. In England, ensuring a focus on basic skills within wider skills policy development could be a way of trying to achieve this.

Language provision for migrants

England’s exclusion of English language provision from the national entitlement to fully funded learning stands in contrast to the other four countries. In Australia, the government has committed to fully funding all migrant language learners to a certain level. Evidence of low basic skills in the non-migrant population from international surveys such as PIAAC has been critical for making the case for the development of basic skills strategies and the allocation of funding to support the work.

Support for delivery organisations

Support for delivery organisations and commitment to building workforce capacity is a key element of effective policy implementation. All four countries provide examples of ways in which policies have sought to develop and support the capacity of delivery partners by: (i) having requirements for tutors to have recognised teaching qualifications and programmes to support continuing professional development; (ii) standardised assessment tools and tailored teaching materials to promote quality and consistency of provision; and (iii) networking and research to enable providers and practitioners to better understand the needs of potential learners and how to respond to these.

Delivery models

Evidence consistently points to the importance of policy supporting diverse delivery models and approaches, to reach, engage and motivate learners with basic skills needs. For all four countries embedding provision in the workplace or context of work is key. Germany, Norway and Switzerland also provide good examples of community-based provision that focuses on wider interests. Embedding basic skills provision in Apprenticeships in England is an example of current effective practice.

The need to support more adults to improve their literacy, numeracy, digital and language skills is clear. The approaches taken by these four countries could be part of the changes needed to strengthen and develop adult basic skills policy in England, ultimately driving up participation