The Write Offs: A window into adult literacy problems

By Alex Stevenson


23 09 2020


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Adult literacy hasn’t much concerned the television schedulers since the Skills for Life “gremlin adverts” went off-air over a decade ago. So credit is due to Channel 4 for commissioning The Write Offs, a two-part series that aims to highlight the issues around the nation’s low literacy levels and the barriers faced by adults who wish to improve their reading and writing skills.

Adult literacy practitioners watching the show already know that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that around 9 million adults in the UK have low levels of basic skills. But it’s rare that these issues are highlighted to a broader audience. With Sandi Toksvig as the hugely empathetic host, clever post-Bake Off scheduling ensured an opportunity to maximise the viewing figures. In the ongoing absence of a national campaign, it might even have helped to raise awareness and inspire some of the audience at home to address their own literacy challenges.

Adult literacy is a complex issue, and, before watching, it wasn’t clear if the nuances would survive the “factual entertainment” format. Early indications weren’t entirely reassuring.  The somewhat pejorative title and trailers which suggested a narrow focus on spelling may have grated with practitioners. References to adult “illiteracy” are not helpful, when a major challenge with adult literacy is not the (relatively) few who can’t read and write at all but the greater number of people who could benefit from improving their skills.

Adult literacy rates are a longstanding challenge, but it really does matter that these needs are addressed now, not least as the severity of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the labour market becomes clear. 

Any misgivings were soon blown away once the learners arrived. A well-judged selection of learner stories were heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. The show featured learners aged 22 to 66, with a range of literacy skills from “pre-entry” to entry 3, and included several learners with dyslexia. Their personal circumstances varied – although negative early experiences of education were a common factor – and the show did a good job of highlighting adults’ diverse motivations to learn, the impact of low literacy in day-to-day life, and how the stigma of low literacy affects people’s lives. These points should be better understood and more widely recognised beyond the adult literacy sector, not least by policymakers.

The need for investment in adult literacy

One thing well-conveyed was the importance of literacy skills in a wide range of contexts, including work, family and, above all, everyday life.  The two challenges set for the learners – if a little contrived for TV purposes – made a good attempt to show different literacy skills in real-world situations, linked to the lived experiences of the learners, such as travelling to an unfamiliar location and reading a recipe. Making literacy relevant is an approach backed up by the evidence on what works in adult basic skills.

In making the show, the learners received intensive, one-to-one tuition for four months.  Sadly, the hard work the learners and practitioners must have put in wasn’t really shown. The time needed to consolidate literacy learning probably doesn’t make “good telly”. But equally unfortunately, the reality is that most adult literacy provision isn’t as generous in real life. Providers would like to offer more, but current funding arrangements often mean larger classes and limited course hours. Investment in the adult education budget has reduced by around 40 per cent in the past decade. This is reflected in declining participation in adult literacy learning, which has decreased by over 50 per cent from 782,500 in 2012 to 360,270 in 2019.

Adult literacy rates are a longstanding challenge, but it really does matter that these needs are addressed now, not least as the severity of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the labour market becomes clear.  Our research has shown that adults with low levels of qualifications are more likely to face job insecurity. Actions needed to drive up adult literacy participation include:

  • Better awareness-raising and identification of literacy needs, and effective signposting or referral to provision.  This should involve a range of intermediaries in job centres and other public services.
  • A broad learning offer, including in community settings, online and in the workplace (5 million adults with low basic skills are in work). It should include non-formal and formal learning, with qualifications like GCSEs and Functional Skills available to suit different learner motivations and progression pathways.

In short, we need a new national mission on adult basic skills. Learning and Work Institute has previously argued for additional investment of at least £200 million a year in basic skills to support adults to upskill and retrain. And with a spending review and the FE White Paper due soon, let’s hope that ministers and their advisers are among those watching The Write Offs, too.

Alex Stevenson is head of English, maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute, and an executive board member at the European Association for the Education of Adults.

As featured in Tes.