Are basic skills and benefits a motivational combination?

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)

After three years away from the front line of government policy, adult literacy and numeracy practitioners suddenly had the spotlights turned on them again last week.

Was I the only one taken aback when Rachel Reeves, using a speech to the IPPR think-tank, announced that the next Labour Government would make it “a new requirement for jobseekers to take training if they do not meet basic standards of maths, English and IT – training they will be required to take up alongside their jobsearch, or lose their benefits”? Suddenly the light is shining very brightly at post-16 literacy and numeracy provision.

Let us leave aside the politics of the proposal, so the questions of where the money is going to come from, how long the courses will be, how will they will be monitored and assessed can be sidestepped (though it is understandable that both the Association of Colleges and teaching unions’ first reactions were to ask about the funding). Instead, I would like to spend a moment or two considering the educational benefits of this approach.

It is likely that many of the cohort of learners to be picked up by this initiative will be people who are no strangers to English and mathematics classes. How are we going to get through to them this time what all the years of compulsory school have failed to achieve? A good start is that if we assume they receive no benefits if they don’t turn up for sessions, attendance is likely to be reasonably good. But is that sufficient? Is just ‘turning up’ enough?

We do not know who will deliver these courses and what the qualification will be. But if the courses are going to follow the adult skills curriculum, rather than the GCSE one, and are taught by FE teachers used to working with adults and who will assume they have an amount of knowledge already – rather than just starting from scratch yet again – this will certainly have a positive impact.

But as all teachers know, motivation is the fundamental issue. Does the learner doing this course really want to achieve this time round? If they do, then their likelihood of success will be raised significantly. If they are just there because they have to be, I think it unlikely that this initiative will make a great deal of difference.

That said, learners doing basic skills because they ‘have to’ can achieve impressively. This was our surprise finding when doing a three-year longitudinal study into basic skills and the armed forces. The young men and women we were following, who came from all three forces, were just those who hadn’t really enjoyed or succeeded at school. Yet when the ‘literacy and numeracy’ moment in their training arrived, they trooped off to do two or three weeks of intensive study…. and succeeded.

I was initially sceptical. One tutor told me she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had failed Level 1 literacy, another talked of those failing numeracy as barely a handful out of hundreds. Wherever we went the story was the same; achievement rates that most FE Colleges could only dream of. Our conclusion was that even if the rookie ratings, soldiers and airmen didn’t necessarily care about the qualification themselves, they knew the Services did. They knew they were expected to pass and that they needed the qualification for promotion. So they went to the lessons, did the work and passed the test.

So interested were BIS in this finding that our colleagues at NIACE, in cooperation with The Manchester College, have since organised a pilot scheme in a group of prisons, running short, intensive sessions on literacy and numeracy. Results suggest that in numeracy at least, success rates have improved significantly in that most difficult of contexts.

I don’t think it is just ‘having to turn up’ however, that is the key; otherwise compulsory education would lead to everyone getting their eight A*s at GCSE. The important thing for me is expectations; if teachers and tutors, parents and peers expect a learner to pass, if employers are going to value the award, then their chances of doing so are that much improved.

So while the success of this policy is likely to depend on the type of course on offer and who teaches it, the key will be whether the Job Seekers’ Allowance claimants believe the qualification they are doing will help them get a job, and whether those around them believe they can succeed.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education
2 comments on “Are basic skills and benefits a motivational combination?
  1. Andrew Sabisky says:

    Well, the army’s selection tests probably already screen out a decent chunk of the left-hand side of the IQ bell curve. The American military are more explicit about this and generally do not let people in with IQs below 85, though I believe they will stretch it a bit sometimes if they need to increase recruitment suddenly. If our military has a de facto similar policy, which I am guessing they do, I would be surprised to find too many with IQs much more than a standard deviation below the norm in service.

    It’s not just intelligence, either: military service basically self-selects for reasonably high levels of conscientiousness. So yes, you will probably get good results teaching maths and literacy to the military: they are hardly representative of the general population. Their conscientiousness levels are high and their IQs at a guess at least average, with a much more narrowly restricted range that excludes the lowest scorers.

  2. Rob Gray says:

    Brian is absolutely right in saying that building motivation is key for many unemployed learners. Our recent NIACE research on Helpful Approaches to the Delivery of English and Maths for Unemployed Adults (available as a free downloadable pdf from the NIACE website) looked into this in some detail. Tutors told us that many unemployed learners (both mandated and non-mandated) were clear about the role of English and maths in helping them achieve their employment goals and that this did boost their motivation. But unless the learners were also convinced that they could achieve the levels of English and maths expected by employed their motivation remained low. It all relates to Expectancy Value Theory which states that a learners’ motivation is a function of how much they believe they will succeed and the value they place on that success. Our research revealed that tutors had lots of ways through which they could reassure learners that success was not beyond them. These approaches are listed in our report.

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