Improving basic skills levels in England

a conference

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last month, the OECD published its review of adult skills in England, Building Skills for All. The review was commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) after a 2013 Survey of Adult Skills in 24 OECD countries ranked England at 22nd and 21st in terms of young adults’ (aged 16-24) levels of literacy and numeracy respectively. For all adults (aged 16-65), the country was ranked in 11th position for literacy, and 17th for numeracy.

England’s skills levels reviewed

The latest review produced similar results, estimating that there are around nine million adults of working age in England with low levels of numeracy and/or literacy. This represents more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65 in the country. The lower levels of basic skills among young people are also noted again: while older adults (aged 55-65) in England have basic skills levels broadly similar to their peers in other OECD countries, the same cannot be said for younger adults. As the older generation reaches retirement age, this obviously raises concerns over the skills levels of the current and future workforce.

The findings prompted the OECD to recommend that as universities in England are “failing to develop quite basic skills” among their students, some students would be better suited to enrolling in further, as opposed to higher, education. If universities didn’t allow students to enrol without at least a GCSE C grade in maths, for example, or graduate without achieving a reasonable level of basic skills, the think tank believes that this would allow a rebalancing of the country’s education system, by targeting resources in areas where they are best suited.

Who or what is to blame?

Higher education bodies did not agree with this assessment of the current system, contending that the survey involved too small of a sample of students to support such a large reform. However, research conducted with employers on their experiences of recruiting young people has found evidence of a basic skills issue. Surveys carried out by the CIPD and Education and Training Foundation both heard from employers who were particularly concerned about young employees’ (current and potential) literacy and numeracy skills, as well as their ability to communicate in a professional manner, i.e. not in text speak.

Following the publication of the OECD’s 2013 report, the president of the International Council for Adult Education, Alan Tuckett, blamed England’s poor results on constant changes to the curriculum, arguing that this had distracted attention from adult education. He argued that there needed to be more investment in lifelong learning, highlighting that South Korea had achieved second place in the rankings, following such an investment. The country enacted its second Lifelong Education Act in 2007, defining lifelong learning as including “all types of systemic educational activities other than traditional school education”, including basic adult literacy.

Despite Tuckett’s criticism, the 2015 OECD review concludes that while it is still too early to evaluate the success of the government’s education reforms, including making maths and literacy courses a requirement in most 16-19 education, their objectives are the correct ones. In terms of funding for adults skills and education, however, recent news of a leaked memo suggesting that BIS agencies including the Skills Funding Agency are at risk of abolition due to further budget cuts is a cause for concern. It has already been confirmed that funding for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) is being withdrawn in 2016-17; supposedly as part of the government’s commitment to protecting core adult skills participation budgets in cash terms.

Good practice: the Citizen’s Curriculum

In 2014/15, NIACE developed the Citizen’s Curriculum approach, with the aim of ensuring that everyone is equipped with a core set of skills required for the 21st century:

  • English;
  • maths;
  • English for speakers of other languages (ESOL); and
  • digital, civic, health and financial capabilities.

The approach was piloted in 13 areas, delivered by a range of organisations including local authorities, colleges and charities. This initial phase sought to understand adults’ motivation for learning, as well as ensuring that they are being provided with opportunities for learning that are suited to their particular needs. This co-production aspect of the approach is seen as key to its success. With a particular focus on disadvantaged groups, including the homeless and ex-offenders, the pilots provided insight into what works in engaging disadvantaged learners. For example, the pilot carried out by the homeless charity St. Mungo’s Broadway found that embedding skills such as maths and English within independent living skills was particularly important, and helped to adequately prepare learners for moving on and progressing in life.

Following an impact assessment that saw 92% of participants indicate that they were motivated to progress to further learning opportunities, the second phase of the pilots was launched in October 2015. This will see previous participating organisations returning to build on their work in the previous phase, alongside new pilots testing the approach in different settings, or with different sets of learners.


 

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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other article on STEM skills in the UK.

Christmas without a home

By Heather Cameron

Last week saw George Clooney launch a campaign to feed the homeless at Christmas by donating the first £5.

When visiting Edinburgh’s branch of Scotland’s not-for-profit sandwich shop, Social Bite, last month, Clooney filmed a video clip on a staff member’s phone in which he pledged the first £5 donation to Social Bite’s £5 Christmas dinner appeal.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Olympic star Sir Chris Hoy, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, comedian Rob Brydon, broadcaster Chris Evans, and Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan have also pledged their support.

Last year’s campaign raised enough money to buy 36,000 meals to feed homeless people in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen for the whole year. Just 24 hours after Clooney’s initial donation, £165,000 was raised with over 33,000 people donating.

How many homeless?

Considering that Scottish local authorities logged 35,764 statutory homelessness assessments in 2014/15, of which 28,615 were assessed as ‘legally homeless’, this figure is impressive.

Nevertheless, the actual number of homeless people is likely to be far greater.

The latest data for Scotland suggests that 50,000 adults experience homelessness each year.

Shelter has estimated that 109,000 children in Britain will be homeless this Christmas, with nearly 5,000 of them in Scotland. According to the Scottish arm of charity, this is a 15% increase on last year’s figure, which:

“is simply not good enough and a badge of shame for such a relatively wealthy country”…The increased number of homeless children indicates a growing bottleneck of families stuck in temporary accommodation due to the major shortage of affordable housing across Scotland.”

upset boy against a wall

Government figures show that the number of people in temporary accommodation has grown over the past five years despite more than £1bn being spent on homelessness since 2010.

And these figures don’t include the hidden homeless that evade official statistics. According to Crisis, “official homelessness figures are masking the true scale of the problem”.

People living in overcrowded accommodation, shared accommodation, young single people and those in ‘concealed households’ (including groups/families/single people who are unable to form separate households and forced to live with others) can all be hidden from the system. And as local authorities only have to accommodate ‘statutory’ homeless people, these people are often hidden from support and advice as well as statistics.

Positive practice

As Social Bite’s Christmas dinner campaign shows though, good work is being done. Many homeless charities work tirelessly across the UK to provide services for people at Christmas time and indeed throughout the year.

The Salvation Army provides support and friendship to the homeless and other vulnerable people and its Christmas appeal for donations of time, money and gifts has seen much success over the years.

Crisis runs their Crisis at Christmas event across the country providing hot meals, fun activities, entertainment, health care and advice for the homeless. This year they have Christmas centres in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, London and Newcastle.

A new community initiative led by students at Darlington College aims to give homeless people in the town a Christmas lunch at the college, a cooking demonstration and festive meal at a local restaurant.

And as well as providing dinners for homeless people in Scotland, Social Bite will also be using donations to provide food and clothing packs for refugees in camps in Calais, the Serbia/Croatia border, and Lesbos.

Final thoughts

With the sheer scale and complexity of the issue, of course it won’t be possible for such initiatives to reach every homeless person. And with the combination of cuts to welfare and a severe lack of affordable housing across the UK, many more families are likely to face a fight to keep roofs over their heads.

So while we settle down to enjoy the festive period with our nearest and dearest, perhaps we should all spare a thought for those who simply seek the gift of shelter.


Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous blog on Britain’s hidden homeless. 

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Commissioning the third sector … are we outsourcing authority as well as services?

By Rebecca Jackson

Public sector cuts under the coalition and current Conservative governments’ programme of austerity have been far reaching and severe. Social enterprises and charities have been promoted by government as a new and effective way to deliver public services in a way which meets the needs of service users but are more cost effective than previous models.

But the closure of Kids Company last month raised questions about the difficulties of outsourcing public services. When a body receives public money, but is ultimately a private organisation or business, who is held responsible for how that money is spent, who is responsible for its regulation and who is ultimately held accountable for its failures?

social enterprise 5

Photo By Paul Carttar & Carol Thompson Cole w/ David Gergen and dpict.info Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Rolling back the state

Estimates suggest there are 70,000 social enterprises in the UK, employing around a million people. Social enterprises and charities have been incorporated extensively into the delivery of public services. This is not only to provide efficiency, but expertise and personalised service in a way that national government-led roll-outs could not. There have been a number of schemes which have functioned effectively, where social enterprises and charities have successfully integrated to help local authorities deliver public services.

Social enterprises represent an alternative way of doing business in the UK; one which promotes investment in communities and projects which promote sustainability and collaboration. They include organisations from the economic, social, cultural and environmental sectors. Their diversity is one of their major advantages.

However some more sceptical about their use have commented that a growing government obsession with outsourcing public services, to both the private and third sector, has created a “shadow state”. Increasingly people have begun to question whether this approach is a sustainable or suitable method for the delivery of public services in the UK. There’s no doubt that social enterprises provide an alternative approach to service delivery, but at what cost to the taxpayer and government legitimacy?

Questions of legitimacy and authority

Founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh in south London, Kids Company provided a range of services to vulnerable children in London, Liverpool and Bristol. Its high profile supporters within government included David Cameron. However Kids Company was forced to close after a very public “funding crisis”. Now there are questions over exactly whose responsibility it was to make sure that the money given to Kids Company by government was spent correctly and who is liable for the failure of the charity and the potential loss of £3m of public money.

There are two key issues. The delivery of specialist services to improve outcomes for hard-to-reach groups, is not easy or cheap. Commissioning these services from the third sector, when there are recognised issues with their ability to access sustainable finance and investment, as well as workforce and skills issues within the sector, is never going to be straight-forward. The situation of Kids Company is actually very unusual as sector surveys show that the main challenge that social enterprises and the voluntary sector face when delivering contracted services is the risk that the focus shifts from the needs of service users to meeting narrow, performance management requirements. Public sector procurement models based on cost and value for money leave little leeway and also put organisations into competition with each other for scarce funding.

Secondly, there is the question of the relationship between transparency, legitimacy and government authority. Kids Company lacked transparency and in the end, by not addressing concerns or applying appropriate scrutiny, government outsourced its authority as well as its services.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons
Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Answers in the form of regulation?

What exactly went wrong with Kids Company will hopefully emerge in time as a result of the statutory inquiry which was announced last week by the Charities Commission.

Within the existing structure in place in the UK, charities and third sector organisations in England and Wales are held accountable for their practice and conduct by the Charity Commission, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own independent regulatory bodies.

However their effectiveness is disputed. Many smaller organisations are left to largely self-regulate. There is no official stance from government on charity regulation, no mandatory standard of practice, only guidance to direct charity conduct. A damning Public Accounts Committee report in 2014 found that “We are dismayed by the fact that the Charity Commission is still performing poorly and failing to regulate the charity sector effectively. It is obvious that it has no coherent strategy and …it is clear that the Charity Commission is not fit for purpose.

It seems that the government lacks the necessary instruments to scrutinise and challenge the way that charities or third sector organisations operate.

Because of the nature of the organisations involved, what the third sector needs is a regulatory body which is able to effectively set out standards and rules of practice, and explicitly state what is expected of charities in terms of accountability where public funds are concerned, but is not a police force. Too much regulation and scrutiny over charities’ practices would make for a sector which was reluctant to contribute to public services and would reduce their focus on the task of delivering effective public services.

This regulatory challenge is something which needs to be addressed if charities and social enterprises are to continue to be part of the public service delivery structure in the UK.


Want to know more about what we do? Our article Celebrating a different kind of library describes our membership service.

Follow us on Twitter to see what other developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Celebrating a different kind of library: the Idox Information Service

Number 95

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office, an art deco building in Glasgow

by Laura Dobie

It’s National Libraries Day this Saturday, and events are being held up and down the country to celebrate libraries and their contribution to communities. When people think of libraries, it tends to be public libraries which spring to mind and rows of bookshelves. However, the library sector is diverse.  Many librarians and information professionals work in different types of organisations, with different kinds of service users.

With libraries taking centre stage over the course of this weekend, we wanted to showcase our own specialist library service and the skills of our library staff.

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over thirty years ago under its earlier name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment, but we’ve expanded our subject coverage over the years to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our research officers are all qualified librarians, and many are chartered members of CILIP. This picture shows the range of activities last year:

2014 statsGrey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

Although we may work in a specialist sector, many of our activities will be familiar from other libraries. We do our own abstracting and cataloguing, and current awareness services are a big part of what we do.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. A recent example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While there has been an increasing trend towards self-service in libraries, and our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully this article has provided some insight into a different kind of library, and library and information work, and the way in which we support professionals across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


Laura Dobie is a Research Officer at the Idox Information Service and a chartered librarian. She writes regular blog articles and research briefings for the service, and tweets for @IdoxInfoService

De-mystifying social enterprise

social saturday 13 september 2014

by Alex Thomas

Tomorrow marks the first Social Saturday (#socialsaturday), a day to celebrate and buy from social enterprises in the UK. Social enterprises are a growing social and economic force with approximately 70,000 operating in the UK contributing £18.5 billion to the economy according to government data. However, despite this presence and impact less than 5 in 10 people know what a social enterprise is and less than one in ten has purchased from on in the last 12 months (according to a recent article by article by Brooks Newmark, Minister for Civil Society). Continue reading