One Page: Back to school time

Ian Merrill
September 1, 2023

Welcome to 'One Page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.

Back to school time


As I write this, many families are preparing for the new academic year.


Some pupils and students hope for qualifications towards particular careers, most are moving up a year and changing sets or subjects. Some look forward to catching up with friends or their school activities, and others are starting out.


At some level, all of them will have days when their lessons seem difficult, frustrating, boring, pointless or out of reach. For most of us, this is part of learning. It is a sobering statistic that 15% of the UK adult population will not be able to read this One Page, however much they might like to.


At the same time, in the news we hear a lot about UK productivity. As a measure of how production ‘inputs’, like labour and capital assets translate into ‘outputs’, productivity is a key indicator of a nation’s economic progress. In 2022, UK productivity was reported to be around 15% lower than Germany and the US (ranked highest in the G7).


I am mindful that statistics and economic measures are blunt tools. Even so, UK productivity has flat lined over the last 15 years, with workers tending to produce less each hour than their counterparts in equivalent countries. This is generally more marked in low-wage sectors.


Commentators call this the ‘productivity puzzle’. I can’t help wondering what part the UK’s rates of low literacy and numeracy play.


I am not the first to ask this question. In 2018, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report said that if the economy is to work for all of us, our efforts to increase productivity must benefit workers. This can be by building and improving skills, and through this increasing pay. Investing in machinery, for example, is not enough.


As UK businesses began to open up following the COVID pandemic, Pro Bono Economics reported that those with poor literacy were more likely to be unemployed or earn lower wages. At the time, they estimated the average UK worker with very poor literacy skills earns approximately 7.1% less than those with even a basic level. This means those people need to work a year and a half longer over an average lifetime to make up the difference.


Literacy is a life skill. It improves our connections with others, helps us understand our place in the world around us, and increases our chances of successful training and employment.


In May 2022, accountants PwC and The Times Education Commission carried out a poll of British firms. The results showed that UK businesses question how well our education system prepares young people for the world of work.


35% of participating businesses said there were shortages of skills in basic literacy and numeracy.


Chair of the John Lewis Partnership, Dame Sharon White, said their organisation offers basic reading, writing and maths classes to young staff. Her experience is that some new recruits to John Lewis have fabulous people and team working skills, but these have been developed outside the education system.


Half of the firms who responded to the poll said they could contribute to a more resilient UK economy if the education system was ‘reimagined’. For example, helping students to develop better time management, team working skills and resilience.


It's not rocket science.


All organisations need workers with a mix of skills. Academic and practical abilities form part of this, but so do soft skills and attitudes, like communication, leadership, commitment, networking and creativity.


Workers who are comfortable with reading, writing and maths are more likely to be confident in themselves in a work environment. They are more resilient and able to adapt to new and different roles and challenges. Or to turn this around, workers who struggle with their reading, writing or maths are more likely to stick to their comfort zones.


Where does Shannon Trust fit into all this?


I know there are individuals in local communities across the country who struggle with reading and basic maths. And they have already got the ‘fabulous’ people and team working skills that Dame Sharon White and others value. If we could help them improve their literacy and numeracy, and build confidence in their abilities, this could open doors to new and different opportunities for work or further study.


This would change the lives of individuals and their families. But could it also contribute to increased national productivity?


Normally I write about Shannon Trust’s work in the criminal justice system, particularly in prisons across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our experience shows us there are many reasons why people struggle with basic literacy and numeracy. Some did not get the chance to go to school, others were not able to engage with classroom teaching. We have seen that with the right help and support, this can change. In fact, 9 out of 10 of our learners take up further education.


This is why we believe nobody should be left out of learning.


I am convinced that our one to one, peer led approach, and the reading and basic maths programmes we have developed, can work as well outside prisons as it can inside them. And we have already seen this in the partner organisations we work with in the community.


One of Shannon Trust’s strengths is how our learning is different to classroom based education. I am not knocking schools, but for adult learners who found it difficult to engage with formal teaching in childhood, this can really matter.


Our learners and reading coaches work one to one, in short, informal sessions. Although we have a reading programme, there are no set timescales; the learner sets the pace. We all learn in our own ways, so there is no judgement, grades or ‘red pen’.


The learner-coach relationship is an adult to adult connection between people working together. It involves turning up, building trust, being open, communicating, and maybe agreeing a plan and some measures of progress. All these form part of the skills employers contributing to the PwC and The Times Education Commission poll said they need.


Our readers want to learn, so they are motivated, enthusiastic and committed. Most want to make positive changes in their lives. Whether that is because they want a different future for themselves, or because their own children are starting out in education and they want to be able to offer help and encouragement.


I’m not suggesting that helping more people in the UK learn to read, write and do basic maths will solve the productivity puzzle. But a Department for Education paper published earlier this year showed how gaining education and skills boosts workers’ productivity. The study found that learning means more than entries on your CV. It translates into their workplace contribution, or more crudely, their ‘output’ for the business.

Although the report looks at higher level education, it strikes me that the same must be true when workers improve their literacy and numeracy. As a springboard, it could have more impact on most individuals and employers than a second degree or similar.

As a nation, if we work to develop and fund peer-led learning programmes for literacy and numeracy in our communities, we could help more individuals add to the people and other skills they already have. This investment would make a difference. It will have an individual ‘quality of life’ benefit. But looking at economics and potential ‘output’, such investment could also increase productivity, person by person, firm by firm.

Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you; whether you agree, disagree or have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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