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Economic Research

Literature review of the effects of improvements in adult basic skills

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  • Release date: 23 May 2006
This study assessed existing evidence of the impact on labour market and other socio-economic outcomes of improvements in basic skills at a level necessary to function and progress at work.

Methodology

A review of relevant economic and education literature, coupled with an analysis of evaluation evidence published by government departments and other relevant bodies. The review encompassed both UK and international evidence.

Conclusions

The results suggest that literacy and numeracy are associated with positive economic outcomes, including higher wages and improved chances of being in employment, even after a wide range of characteristics are controlled for. The results are stronger for numeracy than for literacy - several studies find no effects in the latter case.

An important recent study finds that basic skills are significantly related to economic growth.

Basic skills are also associated with a range of non-economic outcomes. For example, individuals with low level basic skills are less likely to be in good health, and more likely to be depressed and more likely to have a higher frequency of being stopped and questioned or arrested by the police.  International comparisons suggest that the UK’s adult population performs relatively poorly on basic skills, and Wales performs less well than England.

There is a dearth of high quality UK studies examining the effectiveness of basic skills courses, particularly in terms of improving outcomes such as employment prospects. There are a number of problems with the evaluations that have taken place, such as no control group, possible non-random selection of sample, small samples and the use of subjective rather than objective data on the whole.

However, a number of sound studies have found worthwhile literacy gains made by adults attending dedicated basic skills courses.

In the best UK study, few course characteristics were associated with the magnitude of basic skills gains, with the exception of significantly larger gains where tutors had qualified teacher status, and where tutors benefited from having teaching room assistants.

A larger literature has examined the success of programmes in raising basic skills via a more qualitative approach based on case studies. A range of factors has been suggested as being important for effective basic skills learning, including clearly structured programmes, discussion of real world contexts to maintain interest, high expectations of learners, the use of a learning plan for each learner, regular assessment and progress reviews, and the availability of accreditation.

Although basic skills are associated with beneficial economic effects, it does not follow that improving adult basic skills will yield benefits, as the individuals concerned are likely to face multiple barriers. Where the impacts of other levels of training have been researched, the economic benefits have been found to drop-off sharply with age.

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