English, maths and ESOL for 21st Century Citizens

4th November 2015

Recently, NIACE held its annual conference on English, maths and ESOL, organised jointly with NRDC, RaPAL, UCU and NATECLA, and hosted at the Institute of Education. The title, Skills for Life?  English, maths and ESOL for 21st Century Citizens, was of course a nod to the past to provoke thinking about how policy and practice in English, maths and ESOL might develop in the current climate of much reduced public funding for adult learning, in contrast to the years of investment under the original Skills for Life initiative. Adding an ESOL strand this year was, in part, intended to reinforce that as with Skills for Life, ESOL should be considered alongside English and maths, even if policy and practice ultimately differ – the kind of joined up thinking not always apparent in current policy making.


On the policy side, around 100 participants heard from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the likely implications of the Spending Review for the sector and our CEO, David Hughes, highlighted the importance for providers of getting to grips with devolution to maintain and develop vital work in adult basic skills. And the Education and Training Foundation gave an overview of their forthcoming work to reform Functional Skills qualifications and to revise, for the first time since the original Skills for Life, the national standards in English and maths – a revision which will take into account an ESOL perspective, as these are the standards on which ESOL qualifications are also based. Delegates also found Education Scotland’s presentation on Scotland’s ESOL strategy and the Statement of Ambition for Adult Learning in Scotland particularly interesting to compare with the picture in England. All of these developments were underpinned by a timely reminder from NRDC researchers that the ways in which we talk about adult literacy (and numeracy and ESOL) matter. The principles they outlined for doing so can be found here.


The question mark in Skills for Life? also served to highlight that, in today’s society, language, literacy and numeracy skills alone are no longer the only skills for life an adult might need. Most notably, digital skills are missing in this. We ran workshops linking language, literacy and numeracy skills to a wider set of capabilities needed in daily life and for work, and which considered the connections within the related field of language, literacy and numeracy. A packed programme looked at a range of areas of practice, including: family numeracy delivery models, using real life texts in adult literacy, delivery partnership models for ESOL, the new Reading Ahead scheme with Quick Reads, practitioner-led research, integration for ESOL learners, and the resources available from ETF to support English and maths practitioners. I particularly enjoyed the session on ‘giving maths a bad name’ and was also pleased to present NIACE’s work on the Citizens’ Curriculum. This flexible approach interlinking language, literacy and numeracy skills with health, financial, civic and digital capabilities was brought to life for delegates by our pilot providers, English for Action and St Mungo’s Broadway, who presented their case studies.


Getting the balance of content right on these occasions can be something of a challenge – thinking about the research, policy and practice elements, meeting the needs and interests of different parts of the sector, catering for participants who might be new to the sector as well and those who are older hands. Some delegates clearly enjoyed the opportunity for a small-scale Skills for Life (in the old sense) revival, whereas others were keen to hear more about the future challenges and opportunities for the sector. The partners intend that this long-standing event runs again next autumn. If you have suggestions for the kinds of support you would like NIACE and its partners to provide for the English, maths and ESOL sector, leave us a comment below.