October 13, 2020

Basic Functional Skills in the UK

It is well known that the UK is struggling to compete against other countries in the league tables of comparing adult literacy skills. This has been consistent for decades and there have been many reports, using different methods of measurement, over the years confirming that the UK has not yet made the progress it planned or hoped in this regard. So why is this important? And why does it matter to HR or business leaders?

In 2007 the Leitch Review was published, commissioned by the government in response to the recognition that the UK is falling behind in the world table on basic literacy and numeracy skills affecting productivity and the economy. This review set some clear targets to aim for with an intention that there would be a review of progress in 2020.

The UK Government has commissioned a number of studies since the Leitch Review so it may be possible that a repeat study (directly linked to the research in the Leitch Review)  may not be conducted; the Government are currently silent on this.

There has been much to-ing and fro-ing with changes in government policy informed by the findings of different reviews, but the common finding in all the research data is that the UK is still behind its neighbours. In 2012 the UK ranked 17th (for Poor Numeracy) and 14th (Poor Literacy) against the 22 participating OECD countries and regions participating in the 2013 Skills Outlook Survey.

Initiatives such as Train to Gain (2006) were introduced to encourage employers to take up training opportunities and ‘do their bit’ to bring basic functional skills level up. In practice, the take up of this scheme was much lower than desired and so was cancelled in 2010 and a new strategy for Skills for Sustainable Growth was launched. The aim and focus of the new strategy was to provide learning and development opportunities (with the promise of tens of millions in funding) to “equip individuals with skills and qualifications they need to get a job, progress in work and play a full part in society”. There is a clear link in the research to the impact that poor basic functional skills has on productivity and ultimately on the UK’s GDP. More in depth analysis can be found in the report.

Though the most recent impact report was published in 2016, there seems to be very little data officially collected since then to illustrate if the effort made by the Government, agencies and employers is improving the numbers of adults having at least basic functional skills as set out initially by Lord Leitch. However, I have seen some worrying stats (though these do not appear to be official) that suggest we are falling further behind in the world tables. In fact it was quoted in the Guardian earlier this year that UK productivity is at its worst since the Industrial Revolution.

Our Recent Survey and Analysis of the Results

Ever curious, and in the absence of other data that I could find, I decided to conduct my own study using the main benchmarks laid down in the Leitch Review to benchmark where we are today. With access to a wide HR community I sent out a survey inviting HR and business leaders to assess their business in 3 core areas:

  1. 95% of adults to have Level 1 literacy by 2020
  2. 95% of adults to have at least a Level 3 numeracy by 2020
  3. 90% of adults to have at least a level 2 qualification by 2020

Participant were invited to state if (in their experience) the employees (or candidates during recruitment) appeared to be at the target level, had improved since the Leitch Review study conducted in 2005 or have remained nearer to the levels declared when the study was published.

UK target for 95% of adults to have Level 1 literacy by 2020

The Leitch Review results and targets were:

85% current number of adults in 2005

89% by the mid-way target in 2011

95% by 2020

My study revealed only 66% of answers agreed that 95% of adults were at Level 1 in literacy

DPG: UK target for 95% of adults to have at least a Level 3 numeracy by 2020

UK target for 95% of adults to have at least a Level 3 numeracy by 2020

The Leitch Review results and targets were:

79% current number of adults in 2005

81% by the mid-way target in 2011

95% by 2020

My study revealed only 41% of answers agreed that 95% of adults were at Level 3 in numeracy

DPG Blog

UK target for 90% of adults to have at least a level 2 qualification by 2020

The Leitch Review results and targets were:

69% current number of adults in 2005

79% by the mid-way target in 2011

90% by 2020

95% soon after

My study revealed only 50% of answers agreed that 90% of adults had a Level 2 qualification

DPG Blog

All 3 of the results in my findings show that we are way behind even where we were in 2005 when Lord Leitch undertook his studies – this is consistent with the findings that the Guardian published in February of 2020. According to TES it is anticipated that the UK will fall a further four places in the OECD table (should the study be repeated).

So, what does this mean to HR and businesses across the UK?

Despite Government effort, the UK clearly has a long way to go to compete on the world stage. Employers have access to Apprenticeships and the new T-Levels which are excellent ways to develop skills and talent in our businesses. However, employers must recognise and take responsibility for what more can be done to support people entering the labour market, especially in the post-COVID world. There are a number of funded courses available to improve on individual numeracy and literacy skills and often all that is needed is some guidance of where to look and how to apply. HR practitioners can research what is available in their area and make a commitment to providing opportunity for staff to improve their basic functional skills, and importantly, not to completely discount potential new employees on the basis that they scored low on functional skills during any assessment of them.

Some suggested free training resources include:






https://www.theskillsnetwork.com/learners/courses (look for fully funded)

Businesses that are unable or unwilling to recruit people that fall short of the standard required for the roles can still get involved through mentorship programs and offering work placements and encouragement to individuals that need the lucky break to springboard forward in their search for meaningful employment.

In the HR profession we are perfectly placed to encourage business leaders to really think about this. We can present an evidence-based business case that being committed to improving basic functional skills not only widens the labour market but also improves loyalty, commitment and engagement in the workplace. This leads to many other benefits that can be measured on the bottom line. We are the People Profession, the CIPD is pushing us to have greater awareness and impact, to redraw the boundaries, shape strategy and lead transformation.

So, what’s stopping you? Share your stories with us and let’s see if we can champion a shift in attitude and make a difference

Theresa Mayne – DPG online CIPD course facilitator and HR subject matter expert.